Less than a year after a state Supreme Court ruling brought it back from the dead, Pennsylvania’s Democratic and Republican lawmakers are locking horns once again over the fate of the state’s General Assistance program.
Using some parliamentary maneuvering, the Legislature in 2012 put an end to the General Assistance program, which at the time was providing about $200 a month to about 60,000 low-income and disabled state residents. The high court in its 2018 ruling that resurrected the program cited the mechanism by which the 2012 bill was passed as grounds for it to be thrown out.
Now, House Bill 33 by Rep. George Dunbar, R-Jeannette, would once again bring the program to a close, this time without the problematic path that the 2012 legislation took to gain passage.
“Following that court decision, the Department of Human Services has begun operating the program, despite the fact that the program was not funded in the current fiscal year’s budget,” Dunbar wrote in a memo to fellow lawmakers seeking cosponsors. “Without this legislation, the cost of this program – totaling roughly $150 million in its last year of operation – will crowd out other important spending priorities that must be addressed in the coming fiscal year.
Dunbar has managed to get some influential lawmakers to sign on to his legislation as co-sponsors, including Appropriations Chairman Stan Saylor, Rep. Donna Oberlander, the Majority Policy Committee chairwoman, and Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, the majority whip, among others.
A number of Democratic lawmakers, however, are aiming to draw attention to Dunbar’s legislation in the hopes of preserving General Assistance. Rep. Steve McCarter issued a news release to constituents Monday afternoon calling the program “a modest effort started in the 1960s to lend a hand to the commonwealth’s most vulnerable.”
“[The funds] help people applying for Social Security disability income to tide over the two years it can take to receive Social Security disability,” McCarter wrote. “The federal government reimburses the state when Social Security disability income is approved.”
McCarter also noted people in rehab and those homeless because of domestic violence can take advantage of the program, with a lifetime maximum of nine months of benefits.
State Treasurer Joseph Torsella, a Democrat, has also pushed to preserve General Assistance, publishing an opinion piece in April in which he made an argument for the program on moral grounds.
“The modest sums of cash that General Assistance provides to some of our most vulnerable citizens is one of the best ways to prevent them from falling into a downward cycle of unbreakable impoverishment,” Torsella wrote. “A cycle which, in the end, increases costs for our state.”
On the other hand, Rep. Aaron Bernstine, R-Ellwood City, argued recently that the main problem with the program is that there’s no oversight for how the funds are spent by recipients.
“To be clear … ‘general assistance’ means giving cash as welfare,” Bernstine wrote on Twitter. “It’s probably not a great idea to tax people and then give others cash to spend as they wish.”
Gov. Tom Wolf's budget proposal for 2019-20 currently includes $50 million for the program. House Bill 33 is pending before the House Appropriations Committee.