Despite Lawsuits and Warnings, Wisconsin Pushes New Welfare Limits

by | November 5, 2015

By Jason Stein

Republican lawmakers and Gov. Scott Walker Tuesday are advancing separate new proposals to put new controls on public benefits, just weeks after federal officials said that some of Wisconsin's other recent changes in the food stamp program are out of compliance with federal rules.

Federal officials are calling for a number of changes in Milwaukee in a program approved by Walker and GOP lawmakers in 2013 that FoodShare participants would have to work or do at least 20 hours a week of job training or work searches to keep receiving benefits.

The federal Food and Nutrition Service told the Walker administration last month that this program needs corrections in four areas and gave 15 more recommendations for the state in areas such as ensuring the mentally disabled have their cases handled correctly and the civil rights of benefit applicants are respected.

"The state is responsible for determining whether an individual is mentally or physically unfit for employment," Tim English, a regional administrator for FNS in Chicago, wrote on Oct. 15 to Wisconsin Health Services secretary Kitty Rhoades. "The state should provide its eligibility workers with guidance and procedures that support effective screening for exemption...including what might indicate obvious mental or physical unfitness for employment."

State Health Services officials had no immediate response Tuesday to the federal letter. But Republicans are moving forward Tuesday with more limits that they say are designed to ensure that public benefits only go to the needy.

Under bills before the state Assembly, the state would target fraud in unemployment and food stamp programs.

In addition, Walker approved a rule Tuesday to implement drug testing of able-bodied adults in the state's welfare to work program.

"Employers across the state frequently tell me they have good-paying jobs available in high-demand fields, but need their workers to be drug-free," Walker said in a statement. "These important entitlement reforms will help more people find family-supporting jobs, moving them from government dependence to true independence."

In the 2013 state budget, Walker and lawmakers approved a requirement that able-bodied adults without children work or do at least 20 hours a week of job training or work searches to keep receiving FoodShare benefits beyond three months in any three-year period.

In this year's budget, the governor and legislators approved the drug-testing requirement for childless, able-bodied adults in FoodShare, welfare, and health care programs for the needy.

The Food and Nutrition Service letter dealt with the job training requirement from 2013, which has already been implemented.

The first bill before the Assembly was sponsored by Rep. Samantha Kerkman (R-Salem) and would ban workers from seeking jobless benefits for seven years after their second time misrepresenting facts on their applications.

Three other proposals would tighten rules on the use of electronic food stamp cards, under several bills coming before the state Assembly Tuesday afternoon in a session that could stretch into the evening.

Republican supporters of the bills say they are an attempt to ensure that FoodShare and unemployment benefits go to help the needy, not scammers. Democratic opponents say they would be a burden on both recipients and taxpayers, costing more than any abuses targeted and in some cases affecting ordinary beneficiaries.

One measure proposed by Rep. Dave Heaton (R-Wausau) would put heightened scrutiny on cases where recipients report losing their FoodShare cards four or more times in a year -- one red flag for fraud.

"We want to help people who are needy, but at the same time we have an obligation to guard those taxpayer dollars," Heaton said last week. "This bill does just that. It strikes that balance."

Heaton said he had been motivated in part by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel stories that identified evidence of fraud occurring in a small fraction of FoodShare households.

Even a small amount of impropriety can add up in FoodShare, a state-administered program that saw its federally funded benefit payments rise sharply during the last recession. Since then, caseloads have dropped modestly but remain significant -- an average of 836,000 people in the program in Wisconsin in 2014 received $1.1 billion in benefits.

In 2011, the newspaper reported on Milwaukee residents who were openly buying or selling FoodShare benefits on social media sites such as Facebook in violation of the law. In more evidence of potential fraud, the newspaper also found in 2011 that nearly 2,000 FoodShare recipients reported losing their Quest cards -- similar to debit cards and used by participants to purchase food -- six or more times in the previous year.

Sherrie Tussler, executive director of the Hunger Task Force in Milwaukee, said she didn't believe there was enough fraud in FoodShare to justify taking the measures proposed in the Assembly. Tussler was particularly adamant about a second FoodShare bill before the body on Tuesday that would require a recipient's photograph on Quest cards.

That bill would require an estimated $7.4 million in state and federal start-up costs plus $2 million in state and federal money a year to implement and run, according to an estimate by the state Department of Health Services.

Tussler said cards with one person's photo would do little to prevent fraud since multiple people from the same household -- including roommates who aren't related -- are allowed to use a card together. "It's a ridiculous waste of money," she said.

A third FoodShare bill would remove any benefits from Quest cards that have not been used in the previous year at an implementation cost of $1 million in state and federal money.

In 2013, the governor and Republican lawmakers required that able-bodied FoodShare recipients without children participate in job training in order to receive benefits.

Tussler said that since then a large portion of those able-bodied adults were no longer receiving benefits but only a small portion had found work.

In July, the Walker administration sued President Barack Obama's administration in federal court in Milwaukee in an attempt to allow the state to screen people with drug tests if they seek food stamps. Attorney General Brad Schimel is representing Wisconsin in that lawsuit.

The Assembly will also consider Tuesday a bill to make it easier for first responders to obtain naloxone if they are trained, expanding on a provision passed by lawmakers and Walker last year as part of a broad series of bill responding to rising heroin abuse. Known by its brand name of Narcan, naloxone counteracts overdoses from heroin and other opiates.

Lawmakers will also take up legislation to shorten the statute of limitations for recovering damages through an automobile insurance policy in the event of a crash.

Under the bill the limit would be three years in cases of property damage from a crash rather than six years and two years in cases of death rather than three.

However, the proposal also changes the starting point for calculating the limit. Going forward, it would be figured from the time when the person harmed gets a resolution of his or her case in court, rather than from the date when the crash occurred.

(c)2015 the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel