By Andy Metzger
State House News Service
---- — BOSTON – After hours of meetings between House leaders and liberal members and debate between Democrats and Republicans that was contentious at times, the House passed a welfare reform bill Wednesday night.
The House bill will likely head to a conference committee with the Senate, which passed its welfare system changes in June. The House added key provisions backed by Boston Mayor Tom Menino and the liberal wing of the body along with several reporting requirements backed by Republicans.
Critics of the current system say Massachusetts lags other states in its work requirements for public assistance enrollees and the system needs stronger checks and balances to prevent benefit fraud and abuse. Lawmakers are also advancing new supports to move welfare recipients off the rolls and into jobs.
House Democratic leadership agreed to allow public and private education to apply to the welfare system’s work requirement, increase from 30 to 60 days the period when applicants must commence a job search, give more discretion to the Department of Transitional Assistance on medical waivers for the disabled, and add assistance in applying for Social Security - a requirement for those who receive a disability waiver.
The new version of the bill also relaxes a provision that past welfare recipients comply with a DTA plan while off benefits before seeking those benefits anew.
As the chamber stood at standstill for much of the afternoon and early evening, House Speaker Robert DeLeo and House Ways and Means Chairman Brian Dempsey of Haverhill, spent hours talking to members of the progressive caucus in the House, before the bill passed 152-0, as several amendments from both parties were adopted by voice vote and many others were withdrawn.
“We must combine reforms with pathways to self-sufficiency,” said state Rep. Diana DiZoglio, D-Methuen, who voted in favor of the bill. “Having co-sponsored several bills to reform our welfare system, I am glad to see these measures pass alongside key components meant to foster economic independence and success among struggling families in our communities.”
She said, among the legislation’s provisions are crackdowns on out-of-state residents collecting welfare payments and food stamp traffickers. Benefits will be suspended for recipients who fail to notify the Commonwealth of an address change.
The bill also includes a provision that mandates adult recipients who are not enrolled full-time in a secondary school or educational program to seek employment through a new Pathways to Self-Sufficiency program, designed to place welfare recipients in jobs with regional employers. Under the legislation, adult applicants must conduct an initial job search prior to receiving cash assistance and evidence of this must be provided to the Commonwealth.
Republican amendments that were brought up for debate were roundly criticized.
“Every time we ask for reports these days, we’re mean. We’re punitive,” said Rep. James Lyons, an Andover Republican.
Republicans secured some quiet victories, as the House adopted without debate Minority Leader Brad Jones’ amendments to cut off benefits to people who spend 90 days a year out of state, and another that required establishment of an all-electronic benefits system by 2019.
“I am pleased that the House of Representatives has taken yet another step toward achieving a taxpayer-funded Electronic Benefits Transfer program which serves those citizens who are in need of assistance, and who have taken the necessary and lawful steps to secure those benefits,” Jones, of North Reading, said in a statement.