Local lawmakers address welfare 'cliff'


BRATTLEBORO -- Toward the end of the 2013 legislative session, state Rep. Matt Trieber hailed new time restrictions in Vermont's Reach Up program as "welfare reform with a heart."

On Wednesday, during a busy week in the Legislature, the Rockingham Democrat said his House Human Services Committee had approved further changes designed to help Reach Up recipients achieve financial independence. The changes, Trieber said, are designed to address a vexing problem: "People are forced to choose between a job and their benefits," he said.

Early last year, Gov. Peter Shumlin had lamented the fact that Vermont had no limits on the time a resident could stay enrolled in Reach Up. He proposed a 36-month cap with two non-consecutive years following, but that approach was controversial. Eventually, the Legislature enacted a 60-month time limit with exceptions for more-vulnerable segments of the population. In a May interview, Shumlin praised the new regulations, saying Vermont had been "the only state left in America where welfare benefits were timeless, not temporary."

However, policy makers still were thinking about Reach Up when the 2014 session began. The issue this time was the so-called "benefits cliff," wherein those who get a job may not be earning enough to get by but nonetheless face the loss of their Reach Up benefits.

Last month, state Rep. Mike Mrowicki, a Putney Democrat who also serves on House Human Services, said a minimum-wage job alone may not be "enough to lift (a family) out of the cycle of poverty, when even a small car repair can push them off the tracks and back onto public assistance."

Trieber puts it this way: "The financial incentives are to not work and to not move yourself forward."

Trieber said he had done "quite a bit of research with the help of the Department for Children and Families to find out what other states do" to address this problem. That is a driver behind the bill that passed House Human Services. Trieber said the measure allows Reach Up recipients to earn more money before their state benefits are cut back.

"It lets people keep more of their own money, with no extra cost to the taxpayers," Trieber said. "You can also start to save money, whereas before, you couldn't."

The change would be funded by a relatively slight decrease -- amounting to $5 a week -- in Reach Up's overall cash benefits, Trieber said. He does not see that as a cut in the program.

"It's just modifying the benefit structure, and it's allowing people to access benefits that they couldn't get before," Trieber said. "I see it as a benefit expansion."

In other legislative news related to Windham County and its lawmakers:

-- Rep. Mollie Burke, P/D-Brattleboro, said the House Transportation Committee has approved the state's massive transportation-funding bill.

"The total appropriation for transportation is $665.5 million, up over $30 (million) from last year," said Burke, a member of the committee. "However, that increase is mainly due to Federal Highway Emergency Relief money lingering from Tropical Storm Irene as well as to rail and aviation grants and old earmarks."

Notably, the bill includes a "supplemental appropriation that recognizes the excessive winter-maintenance costs caused by this winter's weather," Burke said.

"That appropriation is $1.6 million for paving, to be used for the specific purpose of improving the condition of state and Class 1 town highways that have incurred damage caused by the winter weather of 2013-2014," she said. "This provides potential relief for the town of Brattleboro in addressing the terrible condition of Western Avenue and other roads in similar condition across the state."

How that cash ultimately is distributed will be up to state Transportation Secretary Brian Searles, Burke said. The transportation bill requires the approval of the full House before moving forward.

-- Rep. Dick Marek, D-Newfane, said his House Judiciary Committee has been busy in the first half of the 2014 session.

Among the issues committee members are considering is drugged-driving enforcement. The issue is how to make such enforcement more consistent with drunken driving, though Marek acknowledged that the debate "gets into some fairly technical questions."

"One of the things we're trying to do is guard against potentially unreasonable enforcement as well," Marek said.

-- Judiciary members also are looking at what Marek calls "the collateral consequences of convictions" of any crime. Lawmakers are concerned that some offenders don't understand how their futures -- for instance, applications for student loans or housing -- could be impacted by pleading guilty even to relatively minor crimes.

That may be particularly true for youthful offenders.

"What we're trying to do is make sure that, if people are accepting a plea, people understand what the consequences are," Marek said. "We're looking at having that information provided to any defendant at the time of arraignment. We're still wrestling with whether that should come through the public defender's office or the courts."

-- On a more long-term matter, Marek said legislators also are concerned about state personnel -- sometimes called administrative judges -- who are "scattered all throughout state government and adjudicate appeals from agency decisions."

For instance, such a judge may hear the appeal of a professional whose state license has been revoked. The concern, Marek said, is that there seem to be no standards or training for those judges.

"Some of these decisions are of very great consequence to these individuals," Marek said.

Lawmakers first want to identify all such positions "and then look at whether there should be some common standards," Marek said, noting that such work could take years.

"We really don't know where that's going to end up," Marek said. "I think it will be a very worthwhile process."

-- Trieber found himself in the middle of what some consider a worthwhile debate: Should Vermont's legal age for buying tobacco be raised from 18 to 21?

The cause was pushed by a Jericho representative who earlier had been persuaded to drop the age issue from a bill designed to limit the effects of secondhand smoke. But the House Human Services Committee on Tuesday rejected raising the smoking age, with Trieber making motions to defeat two versions of the regulatory change.

Trieber noted that the committee heard no testimony in favor of the move. In fact, the state's health commissioner reportedly opposed the legislation, saying 18- to 20-year-olds are legal adults and should have the freedom to smoke.

Trieber agrees with that assessment. If the tobacco-buying age was raised to 21, "people can go to war, but they can't smoke a cigarette," he said. "People can be sent to prison for life, but they can't smoke a cigarette."

Trieber also said there were economic considerations.

"There were concerns about what this would do to (Vermont) businesses along the Connecticut River, because New Hampshire wouldn't be raising their age," he said.

Above all, though, Trieber said lawmakers heard no evidence that increasing the legal tobacco-purchasing age would curb tobacco use among youth.

"There's been no definitive proof that this is an effective mechanism that reduces smoking," he said.

-- Mrowicki said lawmakers were "up to our eyeballs in the nitty-gritty" of crossover week, when bills must be approved in committee in order to be considered by the other legislative body by session's end.

In addition to the Reach Up bill detailed by Trieber, Mrowicki said House Human Services members worked on a bill that would "temporarily house those still suffering from the lingering effects of the Great Recession, especially those over 65, families with children under 7 and pregnant women in the third trimester."

Committee members also are trying to "make whole those Vermonters receiving food assistance (3SquaresVT) who had errors made by state employees and were expected by the federal government to reimburse for overpayments."

"Many of us felt this was an injustice to make others pay for mistakes made by the state," Mrowicki said.

Lawmakers also are updating a care system for the disabled, he added.

"Notable is creation of System of Care Study Committee to bring together parents, advocates, providers and agency staff to provide more and better feedback as to what works best for our disabled neighbors," Mrowicki said.

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.


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