HARRISBURG — Republicans in the state House voted Wednesday to end a Pennsylvania cash welfare program, a year after it was revived following a court decision.
The Republican-majority House voted 106-95 to eliminate the $54 million in payments, bundled in the bill with a subsidy for Philadelphia hospitals.
The cash benefit, a program with roots in the Great Depression, had grown to about $150 million a year when it was ended in 2012 under then-Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican.
The Supreme Court overturned that law in July 2018 on technical grounds, and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration restarted the program.
“This was a dormant program, it did not exist,” said Rep. George Dunbar, R-Westmoreland, the prime sponsor. “It was only brought back by the governor, who did it without consulting with the General Assembly.”
Wolf’s spokesman said after the vote that the governor has sought a compromise.
“The budget process and negotiations are still ongoing,” said Wolf press secretary J.J. Abbott. “Republicans have made eliminating general assistance a top priority despite Gov. Wolf’s clear resistance and multiple offers to negotiate a compromise.”
Supporters described the money as a lifeline for the vulnerable, while those trying to eliminate it said the program lacks accountability. The debate was peppered with biblical references and disputes about what forms of charity are most effective.
After Rep. Mike Sturla, D-Lancaster, described those who want to eliminate the program as cold-hearted, House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, ordered that the word “cold-hearted” be stricken from the official record of the floor debate.
The typical monthly payment is about $200, and the great majority of the recipients qualify because they are permanently or temporarily disabled.
“It’s not a lot of money, but it’s literally the difference between living and dying for many people,” said Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler, D-Philadelphia.
Rep. Greg Rothman, R-Cumberland, said the state and federal governments spend billions in Pennsylvania on various welfare programs.
“We care. I’m offended that you think we don’t care,” Rothman told fellow lawmakers. “We care. We’re talking about accountability.”
It’s hard for state legislators to think about $200 a month as “make-or-break money,” said Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Allegheny.
“It is the only — the only — flexible income that so many low-income people have access to,” Frankel said, arguing the money gives needy people the ability to purchase clothing, toothpaste and items not permitted through other assistance programs.
“So what is $200 a month? It’s bus fare, it’s toiletries, it’s diapers for your baby,” said Rep. Maureen Madden, D-Monroe. “It’s a host of things you would not be able to afford without this small sum of money each and every month.”
Appropriations Chairman Stan Saylor, R-York, dismissed the notion that the program was a moral imperative that helps prevent the collapse of society.
“With a limited amount of money that we have in this commonwealth, and the choices we have to make, we have to set priorities,” Saylor said.
The Supreme Court ruled last year that passage of the 2012 law was improper because the bill was not considered in each chamber for at least three session days before being voted out, as required in the state constitution.
In 2012, about 60,000 childless adults — about 60% men and 40% women — had been receiving the cash benefit.
One Democrat and four Republicans crossed party lines in the Wednesday vote. The bill went to the Senate.