PA lawmakers look to sharpen welfare oversight
By Andrew Staub | PA Independent
Two Republican state senators want more stringent oversight of Pennsylvania’s public assistance programs, a move that has already drawn criticism and allegations of election-year politics.
Senate President Joseph Scarnati, R-Jefferson, and state Sen. David Argall, R-Schuylkill, have announced plans to “strengthen the integrity of several areas within the state’s welfare department.”
Their four-pronged proposal would get tough on people convicted of serious welfare abuse. People who get more than $1,000 in fraudulent benefits would be charged with a third-degree felony, instead of a misdemeanor.
“Our concern is that these valuable taxpayer dollars are being misused when the programs are set to help those with a genuine need,” Argall said in a statement. “We need to make sure we protect our most vulnerable citizens while letting the system abusers know the free ride is over.”
WATCHING WELFARE: Two Pennsylvania lawmakers want to tighten oversight of public assistance, leading some to say election-year politics are afoot.
Argall said he has learned, during town hall meetings, about “outrageous examples of misuse of taxpayer dollars,” only to later learn the actions are perfectly legal.
“This drives hardworking taxpayers insane,” he said.
The two lawmakers have yet to formally introduce the proposal as a bill, but their plan already has brought criticism. State Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia, questioned the reasons for the proposed crackdown, saying he was “very, very suspicious” about his fellow senators’ motives.
Hughes contended the cost of ferreting out the alleged abuse can sometimes surpass the cost of the fraud itself and asked whether, in an election year, the Republicans’ proposal was more political than practical.
“The question again is, is there anything really there or is just red herring?,” Hughes asked. “Again, throwing the red meat on the fire — go after welfare folks, go after low-income folks.”
Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, said waste, fraud and abuse needs to be addressed, but he believes the ideas “seem to be harsh.”
In addition to making the more serious offenses felonies, the proposal would require the Pennsylvania Lottery to report individual winnings to the Department of Public Welfare to be used as a factor in determining ongoing benefit eligibility.
Argall and Scarnati also want to address complaints about recipients of public assistance driving luxury vehicles.
People applying for benefits can exempt one vehicle from their available resources, but there is no limit to the value of that vehicle. The proposal would cap the vehicle’s value at $35,000, making any car worth more than that an available resource for the applicant.
Under the proposal, recipients would have to pay $5 to replace a lost Electronic Benefits Transfer card for the first time; another replacement card in the same year would cost $100. The lawmakers believe the move could deter selling or exchanging cards.
Argall and Scarnati want to introduce legislation in the Senate within a few weeks.
Andrew Staub is a reporter for PA Independent and can be reached at Andrew@PAIndependent.com. Follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.
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