A powerful bipartisan legislative committee has used the historic federal welfare reforms as an opportunity to launch an exhaustive line-by-line overhaul of California’s public assistance laws that could affect millions of poor for decades to come.
In some cases the committee, which is expected to finish its work this week, has proposed drastic alterations in the laws; in others, it has simply tinkered with old wording.
Often the panel, which seems intent on drafting a sweeping blueprint for reforms that stretches far beyond the dictates of the new federal law, has adopted major innovations.
It has endorsed a diversion program, modeled after a Los Angeles pilot project, that would steer people away from welfare by permitting poor families in crisis to get a one-time gift of cash for items such as car repairs or utility payments. And it even voted to deny aid to people convicted of selling drugs.
The joint Senate and Assembly conference committee has copied a New York program that requires the state to guarantee payment of court-ordered child support to poor families. The government then has the responsibility to collect from the absent parent, but in the meantime the family can use the support dollars to avoid being on public assistance.
“This is a time for us to do some things we have not done in the past,” said Assemblywoman Dion Aroner (D-Berkeley), a co-chairwoman of the committee. “It gives us an opportunity to experiment.”
All the measures ultimately will have to go before the two houses and Gov. Pete Wilson for approval, and some of the more controversial items will be decided in high-level bargaining sessions between Wilson and legislative leaders.
Sen. Cathie Wright (R-Simi Valley), one of the most vocal members of the committee, said that not everything approved by the committee will survive and that some proposals will have to be cast aside because of a shortage of funds.
“They [Democrats] want everybody taken care of till the umpteenth degree, and that’s not possible,” she said. “I know the governor will not agree to any program that will cause us to spend any more general fund dollars.”
But Lenny Goldberg, a lobbyist for the nonprofit advocacy group Children Now, predicted that the less controversial nuts and bolts changes will stand and will alter the system dramatically. “We will have a new system that will be outcome- rather than rule-driven, more accountable for getting people off welfare and better at providing some real services to people,” he said.
Among the major changes already approved by the committee:
* Adopting a safety net for poor families who have been on aid for five years, the lifetime limit for receiving federally financed assistance.
Families could continue to receive state aid at their current rate, provided the adult recipients are working or engaged in job-related activity such as training.
* The so-called grandparent exemption from work requirements. It applies when a relative over 50 years of age is caring for a child.
* A child care entitlement for all recipients who are required to work.
* An exemption from work requirements for the parents of a child under 24 months of age.
* Restoration of benefits to elderly legal immigrants who will lose federal assistance.
* Providing mental health counseling and other services for many of those with mental disorders that hinder their ability to get a job.
* A requirement that poor mothers provide information to help the state establish the paternity of their children.
If the district attorney determines that the parent is not cooperative, the family’s aid would be cut by 25%. Mothers could refuse information for good cause, such as fear of harm, or if the child was conceived as a result of rape.
* A 10-year denial of benefits to recipients who commit fraud, such as making false statements to obtain aid in more than one state and applying for aid for fictitious children.
* Disqualifying from aid anyone convicted of felony drug sale.
Some of the welfare reforms, such as the establishment of work requirements, have been mandated by federal law but most were made possible by the new autonomy the federal act gives states to design their own systems.
“It’s been an unprecedented opportunity, and we don’t have to nor should we focus on a few areas,” said Sen. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena), a co-chairman of the committee. “We should look at the entire program. We should make changes that we should have made, in some cases, long ago.”
Still to be decided, however, are some of the most contentious issues, including the establishment of time limits for families on welfare. Wilson has proposed that able-bodied recipients already in the system be limited to 24 months of aid in a 36-month period. And he has said that new applicants should receive aid for no more than 12 months in a 24-month period.
A Democratic plan, now under consideration by the conference committee, would vary the time limit based on a parent’s need for training or other services. Those needing just to improve job skills would have a three-year limit on aid while those needing training and treatment would be subject to a five-year limit.
Time limits, provisions for community service jobs and requirements for establishing paternity are expected to be some of the issues in negotiating sessions between the legislative leadership and Wilson.
The committee plan, for example, calls for creating public service jobs for adults who can’t find work in the private sector. Wilson has opposed the creation of those jobs, saying it would be too expensive.
Last week, Republicans in the Legislature signaled that they would fight passage of the committee’s proposal by suggesting a plan that would empower each county to devise its own welfare system.
“I think there are big questions as to whether we are going to see the kind of financial commitment that it would take to carry out the committee’s proposal and whether the governor is going to be willing to go along with a lot of these things,” said Casey McKeever, directing attorney for the Western Center on Law & Poverty.