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Wolf Inauguration

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf speaks after he was sworn in for his second term, Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019, at the state Capitol in Harrisburg.

Gov. Tom Wolf’s first big budget challenge this year might be coming from his left.

Wolf’s offer to divert the state’s General Assistance dollars into a housing fund is being met with criticism from supporters of the cash-assistance program, who are disappointed that the Democratic governor isn’t fighting harder against a renewed push by Republicans to kill the program.

But Wolf’s team says the proposal is the best way to pre-empt the inevitable move by conservative legislators to ax the state’s cash welfare system again.

GOP legislators have already filed a bill for this session, House Bill 33, which seeks to end the GA program for a second time. The program was reinstated in November after the original 2012 law that cut it was thrown out in court on procedural grounds following a lengthy legal challenge.

The GA program provides roughly $200 per month per person to those who have near-zero income for a number of reasons, including the disabled, recovering addicts and those fleeing domestic violence.

But in an announcement last week regarding public benefits reforms, Wolf responded to the situation by saying he was interested in “reallocating” $50 million in GA funding to the Pennsylvania Housing Affordability and Rehabilitation Enhancement Fund.

“Housing is a serious threat to a person’s ability to find and maintain a job and reach self-sufficiency,” Wolf said in a news release. “Instead of eliminated (sic) cash assistance, let’s direct those resources to help the same target populations by availing ourselves of a successful bipartisan program — PHARE.”

But the GA program is not intended to deal with housing issues or be a direct workforce driver, advocates say, and the proposal would not, as Wolf claims, help the same target populations.

“It’s unfortunate to see the governor has taken this path, but at the same time he does face a Legislature that is dominated by Republicans and this is a key priority for them,” said Mark Price, a left-leaning economist with the Keystone Research Center.

The broader problem is that Wolf appears to be “throwing in the towel” on Republicans’ long-term attempts to vilify cash welfare programs in general, programs that Price and others maintain are actually the most efficient at helping the people they target, Price said.

“I think [conservatives] will view this as a full retreat by the governor,” Price said.

Republicans have noticed that Wolf appears to be adopting their rhetoric regarding public benefits.

“The governor used our language — in his comments in that release — which we’ve been using for several years regarding this issue,” said Steve Miskin, spokesman for the Pennsylvania House GOP. “Obviously the governor saw there wasn’t support for re-opening the General Assistance program as it was.”

The Legislature could eliminate GA using virtually identical language to that used in 2012; the court challenge that saw the program restored was not an issue of whether the state had the power to ax the program. Rather, the court agreed that the Legislature had violated its own rules by adding too many new provisions into a budget bill without going back through the proper hearing process.

Given the circumstances, Wolf’s camp says the counter-proposal is the best option.

Wolf’s budget, to be presented Tuesday, will not include eliminating cash assistance, according to Meg Snead, governor’s secretary for policy and planning. The budget will include a $50 million allocation for GA, which is the projected annual cost of continuing the program as a cash entitlement.

Enrollment is now just over 5,500, and isn’t projected to hit the 60,000-plus annual beneficiaries that GA was running prior to 2012, when the program was budgeted at roughly $150 million per fiscal year.

“The $50 million will be fully funded in the governor’s budget as proposed next week,” Snead said. “Nothing about the GA program will change unless and until the General Assembly moves to eliminate the program.”

But with a legislative ban on cash assistance a near-certainty, Snead said, pre-emptively putting an alternative on the table is a way to make sure Republicans don’t eliminate the funding entirely.

“What we’re proposing is an alternative for that $50 million that we think continues to meet the needs of a really vulnerable population,” Snead said. “We realize that affordable housing does not equate to cash payment. We realize those two things are not one in the same, but we also think that housing is still a huge barrier to folks on General Assistance.”

Supporters of the cash-assistance GA program have already lined up against the development, viewing Wolf’s offer as an unnecessary concession. The Coalition for Low-Income Pennsylvanians has sent out emails and online postings encouraging supporters to “ask the governor to defend GA and not send a message that he’ll give in.”

Community Legal Services, the social advocacy group that led the lawsuit to throw out the 2012 GA elimination law, has also criticized any hasty attempt to re-kill the program.

“There hasn’t been a full public discussion about the good that General Assistance does. I think this is a good time to have that discussion,” said Kristen Dama, a managing attorney with CLS.

General Assistance pays out a monthly cash benefit, depending on county, at a dollar value that is also the income limit to qualify for the program.

Cumberland County is in the second tier of counties for cost-of-living under the program. A single person in the county who makes less than $205 per month qualifies for a $205 cash benefit. A family of four making less than $497 per month qualifies for a $497 monthly benefit, for instance.

To qualify, GA recipients cannot receive any federal assistance, such as Social Security disability coverage or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families grants.

Because of the long wait times to qualify for federal disability aid, the state GA program is often used as a bridge.

“These are mostly people with zero incomes who are not able to work and are in the two-plus year window it often takes to qualify for benefits,” Dama said. “These folks also often end up paying back the state out of their retroactive Social Security awards.”

Dama also said GA is available for families who have taken in unrelated children and would not otherwise qualify for TANF, an increasing phenomenon due to parental opioid addiction.

While Wolf’s proposal to increase housing funding may be well and good by itself, it isn’t a replacement for GA, advocates said.

For many GA recipients, housing isn’t the primary barrier, particularly in the cases of recovering addicts whose treatment prevents them from working, or women fleeing domestic violence, who may be “couch surfing” with friends or family while they put their lives back together and need money for basic food and hygiene supplies, Dama said.

“GA is a very particular program that is set up to meet the needs of people in a very particular set of circumstances,” Dama said. “I don’t think these are apples to apples programs where you can take the GA money and help the same people with an affordable housing program.”

“[Wolf] is seeking to sort of do an end-run around Republican opposition by providing some in-kind housing assistance,” Price said. “The question then is if you are going to get as much benefit out of that, as a disabled person, as you were out of cash assistance? My suspicion is no.”

But there will still be some overlap between the cash GA population and PHARE, Snead said.

“I think it would be difficult to argue that an individual making less than $205 per month and who isn’t eligible for any other programs is not faced with some sort of housing instability or housing as a barrier,” Snead said.

The governor’s office will also be able to work with PHARE on the allocation of the funding, which is done at an administrative level, to target funding toward specific groups, including those who were targeted by the GA program.

That funding could also be used toward any of PHARE’s many initiatives, which include loans for new construction or rehabilitation of low-income housing, and also direct rental assistance, according to Snead and Tara Breitsprecher, governor’s deputy secretary for policy and planning.

Conservatives are waiting to see more details, particularly in terms of how the funding will be targeted and how the program can ensure responsible spending.

“During my time in the Legislature, and I have the same perspective here, in the case of this program the issue is a question of accountability,” said Stephen Bloom, vice president of the Commonwealth Foundation, a libertarian think tank, and a former GOP state legislator.

Even broad welfare programs like the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program have restrictions — in SNAP’s case, the benefits can only be used to buy food, Bloom said.

“If the governor were to go back to a program that simply handed out $200 unrestricted cash per person, there would be pushback,” Bloom said. “I assume what the governor is trying to do is perhaps bring some accountability to the concept by focusing it on the housing program ... but we’ll have to see in the coming week if his plan actually does that.”

But supporters of more aggressive welfare programs, like Price, maintain that adding red tape and restrictions only serves to lessen the benefit, not prevent fraud that was rare in the first place. The best way to help people who don’t have cash is to give them cash.

“This is a very, very, modest program of cash assistance that, when it existed, was going to people who are effectively destitute,” Price said. “But you’re pushing uphill against a Republican-led General Assembly that strongly believes cash assistance is damaging to moral character.”

Some Republicans who have co-sponsored HB 33, state Rep. Barb Gleim of Carlisle, have said they are open to converting or otherwise combining the GA program with some other initiative.

“It’s not to say that I’m not for combining services that would pick up some of these benefits that individuals need. But we have to account for the line items in the budget,” Gleim said.

But even at Wolf’s proposed $50 million, Republicans argue this will still constitute new spending, given that GA hasn’t been line-item funded since it was closed in 2012.

“You can’t operate something that has already been closed and isn’t being funded,” Gleim said. “Either we need to close it out again, or somebody is going to have to do something to keep it there.”

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Email Zack at zhoopes@cumberlink.com.

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Cumberland County/Investigative Reporter

Reporter for The Sentinel.