As a young legislator, House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, made a name for himself by promoting cost-saving ideas such as denying dessert to prison inmates and cutting welfare benefits for smokers. He had welfare recipients in his sights again Wednesday as he unveiled one proposal and renewed another.
As announced last August, Seifert and his caucus would seek a requirement that state-issued electronic benefit transfer cards be used only for purchases in Minnesota. That would bring back to Minnesota retailers an estimated $10 million a year that's now spent elsewhere. That's not exactly chump change, but it is just 2 percent of the total amount issued each year to welfare recipients.
The second GOP proposal is aimed at people who apply for state food, health care or welfare assistance within one year of moving to the state, as more than 13,000 people did in 2007. House Republicans would offer them the assistance amounts they would have received in their former state of residence, not the Minnesota level. Minnesota's benefits are so much higher than other states, Seifert said, that the savings for Minnesota could be as much as $25 million per year.
That claim was questioned by DFL Sen. Linda Berglin, longtime head of the state Senate's human services committee. She noted that Minnesota's assistance amounts for families have not been increased since 1985, so many other states now offer richer benefits than Minnesota does. Further, said her House counterpart, DFL Rep. Tom Huntley, the courts have taken a dim view of previous Minnesota attempts to deny welfare benefits to newcomers to the state. "There's no reason to believe the opinion would change this time," Huntley said. Both Berglin and Huntley noted that in total, state welfare assistance to families accounts for 1 percent of the state's general fund spending.
With the state budget deficit at more than $2.5 billion per year and rising, ideas with impact this small must be seen as more symbolic than substantive. Symbolic of what? Minnesotans can decide.