The House budget panel gave a strong sendoff Monday night to one of the nation’s toughest welfare-reform bills, ignoring critics who said it could hurt innocent kids.
The measure, a key piece of the Republicans’ “Contract With Washington State,” sailed through the Appropriations Committee 18-10. Full House approval could come as early as this week.
The Democratic Senate and Democratic Gov. Mike Lowry have sent signals that the House version goes too far and that it will be scaled back in negotiations. Even Senate Republicans say they’ll offer approaches that differ from the House plan.
The bill, HB1481, embraces what national Republicans call a “tough love” approach to welfare. It would remove most welfare recipients from the rolls after two years, a cap that only two other states have. Some exemptions are provided.
It includes a ban on benefits for unwed teen parents and a freeze on cash benefits for additional children born to a welfare family.
Before giving its blessings, the panel passed a series of amendments to wipe out the original pricetag of more than $28 million. The largest single change was to adopt Lowry’s proposal to make jobs or job training mandatory. Previously, the bill had assumed a voluntary approach as job slots became available.
The committee also ended the so-called “wedding gift” - six months of transitional welfare after a recipient gets married and prepares to leave the rolls. This change would save $6.5 million.
The panel voted to limit recipients’ ability to attend four-year colleges while on the rolls. Rep. Ken Jacobsen, D-Seattle, called that move “meanspirited. It is hardhearted and cruel.”
After the amendments, the bill would save taxpayers about $5 million over the next two years - a small amount since relatively few recipients would be affected in the next biennium.
The Republican-dominated committee rejected a compromise offered by the Democrats. The minority party suggested a three-year benefit limit in any five-year period. That is midway between the current four-year limit now awaiting federal waivers and the two-year lid in the GOP bill.
The ranking Democrat, Helen Sommers of Seattle, said the Republicans “would be throwing them off abruptly,” rather than tapering off recipients’ use of state support.
“We’ve all read the polls - we all know people want time-limits,” said Rep. Pat Thibaudeau, D-Seattle. “But what they want is for people to get a job and not get something for nothing.”