Gov. Gary Locke signed a sweeping welfare reform bill Thursday night, ending a 60-year-old government guarantee of assistance to the poor.
Locke’s signature ends years of gridlock over the issue in the Legislature and swings open the door to a new model of public assistance.
The changes will have the biggest impact in Spokane’s 3rd Legislative District, which routinely tops the state in the percentage of its residents on welfare.
The law makes welfare temporary, with a five-year lifetime limit on benefits. It also requires a welfare recipient to find a job - any job, even if it’s at minimum wage - to continue receiving benefits.
Recipients also could perform community service work or enter a vocational-education or job-training program.
The change marks a profound shift in values. It once was considered so important that at least one parent remain at home to raise their children that taxpayers were required to make that possible if parents couldn’t swing that on their own.
Now, everyone is required to work to support the family, even if it means putting children in day care - even if taxpayers have to pay for day care and medical benefits for the working poor.
“This puts work first,” Locke said Thursday night. “We have achieved a foundation for a welfare system that reflects the common-sense, mainstream values of hard work, hope and opportunity for all.”
The governor vetoed 19 sections of the bill - a small portion of the new law.
The sections negated by Locke’s pen included a new schedule of child-care co-payments the governor said made child care too expensive for the working poor.
Locke directed the state Department of Social and Health Services to come up with a child-care subsidy program that will make child care affordable for people making the transition from welfare to work.
His problem is that the budget now in the works in the Legislature does not provide money to pay for subsidies as deep as Locke wants. Whether he can change that remains to be seen.
The bill was controversial throughout every phase of its negotiation, and even the signing ceremony did not go smoothly.
Minutes before Locke stepped into the television lights, the bill’s prime sponsor in the Senate fumed that Locke had gutted the bill.
After Locke signed the bill with a flourish he turned to hand the pen to Sen. Alex Deccio, R-Yakima. But the senator had stormed out of the room.
Deccio promised he would dust off a bill that puts an earlier, stricter version of welfare reform on the ballot.
But Locke, unruffled, said he didn’t believe the votes are there in the House or Senate to get the referendum out of the Legislature. Rep. Suzette Cooke, R-Kent, the bill’s prime sponsor in the House, said she felt none of Deccio’s sense of betrayal at Locke’s vetoes.
“The main points we have been trying to get across are there,” she said.
Cooke was also glad about what’s not in the new law. Republicans won their battle to eliminate a separate, state-funded welfare program to help people unable to find work.
Republicans also triumphed in a section of the bill that allows private companies, churches, and charitable groups to contract with the state to carry out welfare services.
Locke called the bill a “historic milestone” and “possibly the best welfare-reform plan in America.”
But not a single Democrat in the House or Senate voted for the bill. And former Gov. Mike Lowry, in the Capitol Thursday on other business, said the law would “hurt the most vulnerable people in our society.”
Linda Stone of the Children’s Alliance of Spokane, like many advocates for the poor, said she is concerned the law doesn’t provide enough help for people making the transition to work.
“The challenge will be ‘Where are the jobs, where will people get the skills to get those jobs; and is there enough child care and medical assistance?”’
Locke originally proposed his welfare plan in combination with a substantial expansion of the Basic Health Plan to provide subsidized medical insurance for the working poor. But the Legislature so far has refused to go along with the expansion.
That means adults could lose their medical benefits after a one-year transition period when they enter the workforce. Children would still be covered under Medicaid.
Others worried about the effect welfare reform will have on the economy when thousands of low-wage, unskilled workers flood the economy.
“It will put downward pressure on wages. It’s a simple matter of supply and demand,” said Rep. Jeff Gombosky, D-Spokane. He also worried about more competition for scarce child care, medical benefits and workforce training slots.
“In Spokane, with it’s low-wage economy, this takes us in exactly the wrong direction,” Gombosky said.
Under the new law, the Department of Social and Health Services must reduce the number of people on public assistance by 15 percent, or about 15,000 people, over the next two years.
Locke conceded there is still much to be done to ensure the bill is a success.
In places like Pend Oreille County, with a 19.6 percent unemployment rate, even the most resourceful, able-bodied job applicant could find themselves out of luck when the new time limit on benefits is reached.
There’s no good answer yet as to what happens then. That, and other questions, such as how to even keep track of the five-year limit with the possibility of people changing their names, moving and more, remain unresolved.
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: ENDING WELFARE AS WE KNOW IT What the welfare reform bill does: Ends automatic entitlement to public assistance. Requires welfare recipients to work or participate in community service, vocational education or training programs. Puts a five-year lifetime limit on benefits. Suspends driver’s licenses and professional or occupational licenses of people behind in child support payments. Provides some exemptions from the work requirement, such as for people with young children who cannot find child care. Also exempts people on the basis of hardship, including physical disability. Requires unwed teenage mothers to be living with a responsible adult to receive the welfare cash grant. Allows grants to be reduced or eliminated if recipients don’t comply with work requirements, Reduces cash grant to welfare recipients if the state’s caseload is not reduced by 15 percent in the next two years. Allows legal immigrants who came to this country after August 1996 to be eligible for welfare benefits. Those who have arrived since that date would be eligible if their sponsor dies or becomes incapacitated. Allows privatization of welfare services, including eligibility screening, program administration and work placement.