GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

June 17, 2013

House panel mulls EBT, welfare reforms

By Matt Murphy
State House News Service

---- — BOSTON — Masschusetts House leaders are doubling down on efforts to reform the state’s beleaguered welfare system and are planning to roll a series of proposals adopted in April as part of the branch’s annual budget plan into a mid-year spending bill being teed up for debate next week.

The House Ways and Means Committee is polling its members on a supplemental spending bill that includes requirements such as photo identification on electronic benefit transfer, or EBT, cards to cut down on illegal trafficking of the cards.

The bill will also include a provision giving the Department of Transitional Assistance the option of fingerprinting welfare applicants to match the prints against criminal databases in instances where the identity of the applicant may be in question based on other eligibility information provided, according to an official at Ways and Means.

The reforms were all included in the House’s $34 billion budget, but were rejected by the Senate where Democratic leaders encouraged senators to hold off on welfare reform until Senate President Therese Murray unveils her more comprehensive welfare bill later this month.

The competing House and Senate budget plans are currently being negotiated by a six-member conference committee, with a final bill due before the start of the fiscal year on July 1. Murray has said she intends to roll out her own welfare reform ideas the third or last week of June.

If the Ways and Means committee, chaired by Rep. Brian Dempsey, accepts the mid-year budget bill on Friday, it is expected to be debated by the full House sometime next week, according to a Ways and Means staffer.

While deadlines mean the spending bills will likely pass soon, the timetable for passage through the Legislature of a larger welfare reform bill is uncertain.

Though the bottom line or spending details of the House supplemental budget bill were not immediately available, it is expected to include funding for caseload driven programs such as hotel and motel accommodations for the homeless who cannot get into shelters.

Gov. Deval Patrick filed a $119.3 million mid-year spending bill in early May to address unpaid snow and ice removal bills and dedicate additional funds to programs like summer jobs for youths.

The House budget directed the Department of Transitional Assistance to require photo ID on EBT cards and ordered that the agency must consider the financial value of business assets, proof of income or assets of unverified applicants and the assets or income of responsible relatives when determining eligibility for public benefits.

The bill also allocated $350,000 to establish an independent Bureau of Program Integrity in the Executive Office of Health and Human Services headed by an appointee of the Inspector General to oversee regulations to improve eligibility determination and identify and correct fraud in public assistance programs.

The DTA would also be required to maintain a computerized income, asset, and identity eligibility verification system, a component of which would be an automated fingerprinting comparison system.

During a recent debate over a long-term borrowing bill to support public and low-income housing, the House rejected an amendment that would have required welfare applicants to provide Social Security numbers as identification, but the House budget bill does stipulate that “if a recipient is unable to provide an accurate social security number to replace a numerical identifier within a time period of 3 months, the recipient’s public assistance benefits shall be terminated.”

Patrick’s spending bill also included $12 million for Secretary of State William Galvin’s office for the administration of special elections this spring, $1.8 million for the Department of Corrections and an additional $16.8 million for the Committee on Public Counsel Services, which provides defense counsel for indigent defendants facing criminal charges.