Politics & Government

Bill tightening restrictions on welfare recipients advances in Kansas Senate

HB 2258 solidifies in law several reforms to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, commonly called welfare, adopted by Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration during his first term.
HB 2258 solidifies in law several reforms to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, commonly called welfare, adopted by Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration during his first term. File photo

The Kansas Senate is moving forward with a bill that limits people to 36 months of welfare benefits, bans repeat drug offenders from food assistance for life and restricts the amount recipients can withdraw from an ATM using a welfare benefits card.

Senators passed HB 2258 by voice vote Wednesday after a heated debate that lasted most of the day. The bill will be up for a final vote Thursday and is expected to pass easily.

The bill makes changes to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, commonly called welfare, and the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, commonly called food stamps. The programs are federally funded but administered by the states.

It includes a lifetime limit of 36 months for TANF benefits. A person could be eligible for an additional 12 months under extraordinary hardship – such as living with a disabled family member or surviving sexual assault.

The current state limit is 48 months. The limit under federal law is five years.

Sen. Michael O’Donnell, R-Wichita, who carried the bill on the floor, said the intent was to go “back to the ‘T’ and making sure this is ‘temporary.’ ”

Limiting the time a person can receive benefits acts as an incentive to re-enter the workforce, supporters said.

“Work lifts individuals out of poverty,” said Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, R-Shawnee. “It lifts individuals out of depression, and it gives them a sense of self-worth.”

Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, called the bill mean-spirited and said its purpose was to tie the hands of the next administration.

The bill also solidifies in law several changes Gov. Sam Brownback made in his first term so that they will continue under the next governor. That includes a requirement that able-bodied TANF beneficiaries enroll in a job training program or work 20 hours a week to receive benefits after three months on the program.

Debate on the bill started a little after 10 a.m. and lasted most of the day. Emotions ran high as lawmakers wrapped up the debate just before 7 p.m.

Sen. David Haley, D-Kansas City, called the bill’s passage during Holy Week ironic. He chided Republican members of the Senate, who regularly hold Bible studies at the Capitol, to reflect on whether the bill matched the teachings of Christ.

“We can’t say one thing on Wednesday and shift gears on Sunday and think that somebody isn’t paying attention,” he said.

O’Donnell, who by Senate rules stood for the entirety of the debate, said it was wrong to make assumptions about other lawmakers’ reasons for supporting the legislation.

“My grandfather has an eighth-grade education,” he said, his voice cracking. “He has a son with a Ph.D. and grandson who’s a state senator. And he never got on welfare, because he saw when his mom got on welfare what it did to his family. … That inspired me to know that there’s a lot more than government assistance.”

ATM limit

The bill would limit to $25 a day the amount a recipient could withdraw using a Vision card at an ATM after an amendment by Sen. Caryn Tyson, R-Parker, passed. The Vision card functions similar to a debit card.

The federal and current state laws do not limit withdrawal amounts. The bill originally would have limited withdrawals to $60.

Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita, said any limit could create significant problems for TANF beneficiaries. She said many of her constituents need to withdraw $600 to pay their rent on time each month. She called the amendment ludicrous and noted a large number of beneficiaries are mothers.

“They usually want shelter for their children,” she said.

Tyson said recipients could withdraw more from a bank.

But Faust-Goudeau said Vision cards can’t be used at the bank counter and that many TANF beneficiaries do not have bank accounts.

“In order to open up a bank account, you’ve got to have some money to put in it,” she said.

Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, a landlord, said that it appeared the Legislature was putting up unnecessary hurdles for people. O’Donnell said the intent of the limit was to encourage people to use money more responsibly.

Faust-Goudeau accused other members of the Senate of treating welfare recipients like they’re “lowlifes sitting at home, doing nothing” but emphasized that the majority of beneficiaries are the working poor.

Food assistance

The bill also says that TANF money cannot be used for a long list of items, including alcohol, cigarettes, concert tickets, psychics or fortune tellers, theme park tickets or cruises.

It establishes a lifetime ban on food assistance for people who have two felony drug convictions. Any recipient who tested positive for drugs would be suspended from food assistance.

Sen. Vicki Schmidt, R-Topeka, a pharmacist, raised concerns about that earlier Wednesday.

“The world of addiction is a terrible, terrible world to be in, and they have failures along the way,” she said.

Schmidt succeeded in attaching an amendment to ensure that children whose parents lose their benefits would still receive food assistance.

Haley questioned why the bill singled out drug offenders over other felons. He said BTK would be eligible to receive SNAP under the bill, while drug offenders would not.

Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, R-Hutchinson, said the policy was meant to ensure that food assistance dollars wouldn’t be subsidizing a drug habit.

Benefits fraud

The bill also establishes a lifetime ban from TANF for any adult living in a household where another adult has committed benefits fraud.

Haley said this policy, already in practice, penalizes people for being married. Francisco said a person could receive a lifetime ban if a roommate committed an offense of which he or she was unaware.

O’Donnell said Kansans don’t want assistance money going to households where fraud is being committed. He said children would still receive benefits, which would be sent to a protective payee – a neighbor, teacher or relative who volunteers for the job.

Shannon Cotsoradis, president of the advocacy group Kansas Action for Children, said the bill would make it harder for families to get benefits they need. She pushed back against the notion that children would not be affected if their benefits were maintained while their parents’ were cut. Parents and children don’t pay separate rent checks, she said.

Phyllis Gilmore, secretary of the Department for Children and Families, said criticism about the bill, which has been heavily pushed by the Brownback administration, is misguided. She said the eligibility requirements and lifetime limits are meant to help guide people back into the workforce rather than restrict access.

“This is where we always butt heads,” Gilmore said. “What they (the opponents) see as punitive and restrictive, we see that the name of the act is the HOPE Act. This gives people hope. This is a way out of poverty.”

The House already approved a version of the legislation, but because the Senate made changes, both chambers would have to agree on a final version.

Reach Bryan Lowry at 785-296-3006 or blowry@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @BryanLowry3.

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