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Missouri's GOP Legislature Overrides Governor's Veto of Welfare Cuts

Republicans used their supermajorities in the Missouri Legislature on Tuesday to override Gov. Jay Nixon's veto and enact a bill that the GOP says will reform welfare.

By Virginia Young

Republicans used their supermajorities in the Missouri Legislature on Tuesday to override Gov. Jay Nixon's veto and enact a bill that the GOP says will reform welfare.

The new law will ratchet down the length of time that a family can draw welfare benefits and ramp up the requirements for low-income parents to get job training, do volunteer work or complete high school and vocational education.

"I think it will be surprising to see the success rate with this bill, and the smiles on the faces of those folks that move out of the poverty trap and move into charting their own destiny," said the bill's House handler, Rep. Diane Franklin, R-Camdenton.

Democrats called the bill an attack on the poor, particularly children. An estimated 6,310 children live in households that are expected to lose benefits when the new limit takes effect in January.

Children are "being punished through no fault of their own," said Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis. Noting that the Legislature has embraced tax breaks for dairy farmers and other businesses, she said: "We've been giving subsidies to those that don't really need it, but then we're hurting those that need it most."

At issue is Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF. It provides federally funded cash benefits to low-income parents with children younger than 18.

As of March, there were about 73,323 Missourians receiving TANF benefits. About 60 percent of them are children. An eligible household, on average, receives $227 a month.

Under the bill, families will be limited to three years and nine months on TANF starting Jan 1. That will lop off 15 months from the current lifetime limit of five years.

In vetoing the bill last week, Nixon, a Democrat, said it penalized children for their parents' behavior. He called the bill "mean-spirited and just plain wrong."

Undeterred by the override, Nixon later Tuesday vetoed another bill passed by the Legislature that would cut government benefits. That measure could reduce unemployment benefits from the current 20 weeks to as low as 13 weeks by linking the maximum number of weeks to the statewide average employment rate. "There is no sound fiscal argument for this bill," he said in a statement.

Republicans argued that the TANF program encourages dependence instead of personal responsibility. They noted that Missouri's welfare policies ranked last nationally in a report by the Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based nonprofit group that advocates free-market policies.

The bill's backers pointed to the first word of the program -- temporary.

"The intention was to help families receive the help they need for a short amount of time," Rep. Marsha Haefner, R-south St. Louis County, said at a meeting last month.

While they don't always walk in lockstep, Republicans united behind the welfare bill. Overrides require a two-thirds vote in each chamber, and both chambers easily surpassed that target.

The Senate reversed Nixon in a 25-9 party-line vote. The House vote was 113-42, with a smattering of members voting against their parties.

In the "yes" column: 111 Republicans, one Democrat and one independent. The override needed 109 votes to pass.

The Democrat who broke ranks and sided with Republicans was Rep. Ben Harris of Hillsboro. The independent for the override was Rep. Keith English of Florissant.

Voting "no" in the House were 40 Democrats and two Republicans. The dissident Republicans were Reps. Nick Marshall of Parkville and Jeff Pogue of Salem.

The House had wanted to reduce the lifetime limit to 2 1/2  years while senators had agreed on a four-year limit. Three years and nine months was the middle ground chosen by Republicans on a House-Senate conference committee. Democrats did not sign the agreement.

The change is expected to result in 3,155 families being kicked off the program in January, though some could seek hardship exemptions.

Only eight states will have shorter lifetime limits than Missouri, with Connecticut setting the floor at 21 months. The others that have lower limits are Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Indiana and Kansas.

But Missouri is playing catch-up in another area. Most states already require welfare recipients to participate in work activities as soon as they begin drawing benefits. Missouri gives recipients a two-year reprieve. That will end with this bill.

Recipients will be required to sign a "personal responsibility plan" spelling out their work activities before they are eligible for cash benefits. Such activities can range from GED classes to résumé-writing seminars to child care services.

If they miss their work assignments, a state caseworker or contractor will be required to meet face-to-face with the welfare recipient, who will have six weeks to comply. If parents continue to miss classes or jobs, they'll lose half of their benefit checks.

Critics said the bill showed a lack of understanding of the daily struggles of those who live in poverty, where a plan to go to work can be derailed by a crisis such as a car's breakdown.

"Sometimes they've got so many problems it's even daunting to listen to their problems," Pat Dougherty, a former senator who is a lobbyist for Catholic Charities of St. Louis, said at a public hearing on the bill in January.

Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, said she has a friend who tutors low-income children. Once, when the children were tired, the tutor asked why.

An eighth-grader said she was up late because she had to go the coin laundry at midnight, when her mother got off work. The other student, a second-grader, said he had slept on the floor. The family lacked enough mattresses for him and his siblings.

Sen. David Sater, R-Cassville, and the bill's sponsor, countered that Missouri could lose its federal block grant that funds the program if it doesn't beef up its work requirements. He characterized Missouri's work participation rate as 14 percent, well below the federal requirement of 50 percent.

Indeed, Missouri has missed work participation targets in several years, according to data on the website of the federal Office of the Administration for Children and Families. The rate is based on a complex formula that includes credits states receive for reducing the TANF caseload. Figures for the most recent years were not available.

Sater estimated his bill would save $21 million, part of which would be earmarked for services such as subsidized child care and transportation for single parents.

"I think those are all positive things," he said.

The bill also allows the Department of Social Services to provide lump-sum grants to welfare recipients for short-term needs caused by loss of a job, domestic violence, catastrophic illness or other emergencies. The once-a-year grants would be provided in place of long-term cash benefits.

And in a reform aimed at encouraging marriage, the state would not count the income of a new spouse of a welfare recipient when determining the family's eligibility for the first six months.

The bill allocates 2 percent of the TANF block grant for programs that promote alternatives to abortion and 2 percent for responsible fatherhood initiatives. Those expenditures will be subject to annual appropriations.

Democrats said some of the reforms were positive.

"I do think there is a lot of good in this bill," said Sen. Scott Sifton, D-Affton. "There is generally a consensus that work activity should be part of the bargain."

But jobs that pay a living wage are not always available.

"As much as ours is a land of opportunity, unfortunately, it is not a land of opportunity for all," Sifton said.

Nasheed said the bill would not save any money because desperate people would be driven to commit crimes to feed their families.

"If they have to go rob, cheat, steal and kill, that's what many of those individuals may do," she said. "At the end of the day, we're going to have to house those individuals in prisons."

The bill is SB24.

(c)2015 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch


Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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