State Legislature OKs Ventura County Effort to Change Welfare System
The state Legislature unanimously approved Ventura County’s plans to overhaul its welfare system late Friday night, giving local officials more control over how they spend welfare dollars and manage social programs.
“This is a major victory,” said Catherine Morrison, an aide to state Sen. Cathie Wright (R-Simi Valley), who wrote the bill. “The fact that it was a unanimous vote is very encouraging as it now goes to the governor for his approval.”
County Supervisor Frank Schillo, who has played a key role in pushing the legislation in Sacramento, also cheered the news.
“I’m just overjoyed,” he said. “This is highly significant. This is going to be a benchmark for California as to how welfare money is spent and how welfare reform--which has been talked about for years--is going to be implemented.”
The legislation must now go to Gov. Pete Wilson for his approval, which could come within the next few weeks.
“This has had Republican support all along,” Schillo said. “With both sides of the aisle in support of it, I think he’s going to sign it.”
If approved, Ventura County would be the first jurisdiction in California with its own welfare reform program. The legislative action comes one week after President Clinton signed into law radical changes in the national welfare system designed to reduce benefits and get recipients into jobs.
County officials had been worried over whether the legislation would be approved before the Legislature ends its 1996 session today.
But officials got an encouraging sign when the Republican-dominated Assembly unanimously approved the bill early Friday by a vote of 59 to 0. Then the Democratically controlled Senate followed late in the evening by endorsing the measure 40 to 0.
State Sen. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles), chairwoman of the Senate’s Health Committee who in the past had expressed reservations about some of the bill’s provisions, spoke in support of the legislation before the final vote was taken.
“She was just really good,” Morrison said. “The fact that the chair of the health committee got up and supported this bill was very influential.”
In addition to Wright, county officials credited state Sen. Jack O’Connell (D-San Luis Obispo) and Assemblyman Nao Takasugi (R-Oxnard) with helping to garner support for the bill in both houses.
“We’ve got some terrific legislators that have really gone to bat for us,” Schillo said.
The welfare reform bill, which has been in the works for nearly a year, would allow Ventura County to work more closely with employers to better prepare welfare recipients to reenter the workplace. It would also allow the county for the first time to combine money and staffing for welfare and work programs that have traditionally operated separately.
Helen Reburn, deputy director of the county’s Public Social Services Agency, could not be reached for comment Friday night. But earlier she said the state “has nothing to lose and everything to gain by trying this approach. It could be a model for the state.”
Officials said the legislation is critical now that Congress has approved sweeping changes in federal welfare programs that could place a massive financial burden on states and counties.
The national reform package includes provisions that would require welfare recipients to rejoin the work force within two years or lose all cash benefits. It would limit financial assistance to a lifetime total of five years.
And it would deny Supplemental Security Income, food stamps and other federal benefits for most legal immigrants until they become citizens.
Without federal help, these welfare recipients may have no choice but to turn to the county for general relief assistance, officials said.
Additional costs to the county-funded program could run more than $40 million a year, officials said.