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August 22, 2014, 1:39 pm

Cash aid for disabled adults on Pa. chopping block

HARRISBURG — A program that provides about $200 a month for tens of thousands of disabled adults who can't work is on the chopping block even as improving tax collections give state lawmakers the freedom to reverse some of Gov. Tom Corbett's proposed cuts in spending for things like universities, the race horse industry and the Legislature itself.

Corbett, a Republican who ran on a no-new-taxes pledge, advocated doing away with the $150 million General Assistance cash benefit in a $27.1 billion budget plan he released in February. It called for a series of cutbacks he blamed largely on the rising cost of pensions and health care for the poor.

Then senators voted 39-8 last week for an alternative, $27.7 billion budget that also would eliminate the cash benefit while adding hundreds of millions of dollars to the subsidies that Corbett proposed for universities, public schools, county-run social services, the race horse industry, medical research, retailers that collect sales taxes and hospitals and nursing homes that care for the poor. Senators also plugged in $12 million to erase cuts in the Legislature's accounts that Corbett proposed.

House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, suggested that the House — which like the Senate is controlled by Republicans — was unlikely to change the elimination of the General Assistance cash benefit when it considers the Senate's plan.

"I think that our colleagues have made an important policy statement and many of us feel that ... they're headed in the right direction," Turzai said. "There's aspects to the program that are too discretionary and they need (to be) reformed at a minimum."

Asked why the state couldn't keep the program while improving it, Turzai responded: "I think there's just been a history of abuse that's been shown there, and it needs further reform and further reduction."

Turzai cited audits by the state's independent fiscal watchdog, Auditor General Jack Wagner, a Democrat. But Wagner responded that he never audited the General Assistance cash benefit program and that his audits of Department of Public Welfare programs never recommended eliminating benefits.

"In all our audits, we never had a recommendation to cut a person off," Wagner said. "What we have repeatedly said is, 'you need to fix the system.' And that is a much more difficult thing to do than simply cut people off the program or cut the amount of money going to the program."

Although the cash benefit has no industry or organized beneficiary to lobby for its survival, the nonprofit Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania got involved because it found a functioning program with proper safeguards that helps people avoid homelessness until they get back on their feet, executive director Liz Hersh said.

Improvements can be made while the cash benefit program is maintained, Hersh said.

"We don't want to further victimize people who are really extremely impoverished and relying on this meager resource to pull themselves up by their bootstraps," Hersh said.

Michael Froehlich, a staff lawyer for Philadelphia-based Community Legal Services, questioned why a major policy decision was being made without hearings. In any case, eliminating the benefit could likely mean bigger costs for society, Froehlich and Hersh said.

More than 60,000 childless adults — about 60 percent men and 40 percent women, according to the Community Legal Services — get help from the program each year. They tend to spend the approximately $200 on rent, transportation or addiction treatment fees, advocates say. They can also qualify for food stamps.

Since July 1, 2010, investigations of the cash benefit resulted in 86 prosecutions that resulted in guilty pleas or convictions and 46 cases that went through a diversion program for first-time offenders, the state inspector general's office said.

The Department of Public Welfare said there are no written guidelines on how recipients can spend the money, since the state generally follows federal rules and they prohibit restrictions on the use of federally-funded cash benefits. The money is loaded onto electronic cards that cannot be used at liquor stores or casinos, the department said.

The Corbett administration argues that it has little choice but to eliminate the cash benefit if it is going to rein in the growth of welfare costs. Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Jake Corman, R-Centre, said senators had other priorities when they were deciding which of Corbett's proposed cuts to soften.

"We obviously didn't have enough to fill every hole and we prioritized as best as we could," Corman said.

Democrats tried in a floor amendment to restore it, but it was rejected, 29-18 — with two Democrats and every Republican opposing it. -- (AP)