By Matt Murphy
State House News Service
BOSTON -- House Speaker Robert DeLeo defended the welfare-reform bill before the House for a vote on Wednesday, while acknowledging some of the criticism surfacing from Democrats and Boston City Hall as he suggested a willingness to consider some amendments filed by members.
"I'm not trying to go after anyone who really needs benefits, but I'm not going to stand for and see the taxpayer's money fraudulently being taken. I'm just not going to stand for that. On the other hand, if we've got people who need help they're going to get that help," DeLeo told reporters.
The House Ways and Means Committee has proposed legislation building off a similar proposal that cleared the Senate in June to revive a welfare-to-work policy that would create new programs to link public-assistance recipients with private-sector jobs that match their skill sets.
The legislation also seeks to further crack down on fraud and abuse in the system by requiring applicants to prove they're looking for work before they qualify for benefits, capping benefit balances for families on welfare, and prohibiting the transfer of cash benefits to family overseas.
House Democrats met in private for nearly two hours, starting Wednesday morning and spilling into the early afternoon in what DeLeo called a "lively" debate.
"There's disagreement on a number of things, but I get that at most caucuses and that's OK," DeLeo said.
"We had a very, very lively caucus where people feel strongly on both sides," he added.
"What I heard, some folks felt we went too far and some folks felt we didn't go far enough. So my way of thinking is maybe that shows we probably got it just right."
Still, DeLeo said he and his team would take a look at some of the amendments filed and consider changes based on the arguments made in caucus.
Activists representing low-income residents stationed themselves outside the Statehouse room where House Democrats were cloistered to discuss the bill, eager to speak to members about changes they were seeking to the legislation, particularly provisions they felt would impose new work requirements on disabled people.
Boston Mayor Thomas Menino also challenged the bill in a letter to Boston lawmakers, urging the adoption of an amendment filed by Cambridge Rep. Marjorie Decker.
"The legislation before you includes elements that would result in significantly more denials and deeper poverty, by making it difficult for individuals and families to enroll or re-enroll for benefits and to build and maintain assets," Menino wrote. "Other aspects undercut efforts by persons on welfare to break the cycle of poverty, for example, by furthering their post-secondary education at a 4-year college."
DeLeo said he had not spoken with Menino about the mayor's concerns, and Dempsey said he had only briefly seen what Menino had written, but responded to some of the specifics in the letter.
"Today's legislation is about how do we get people to move from welfare and we do that by focusing on job training, by focusing on providing child care, providing enough support at the DTA offices," Dempsey said.
The Haverhill Democrat said, "I think there has been some misinformation circulating regarding what our final recommendations are, specifically relative to the education piece. We actually double the amount of time a recipient can be in school."
While the bill extends from 12 to 24 months the amount of time a welfare recipient can use school to fulfill their work requirement, Dempsey said the bill could use some "fine tuning" around whether it has to be a community college or a four-year school.
Critics have also questioned why the House increased from 28 weeks to 30 weeks the time a pregnant woman receiving public assistance must work to continue qualifying for benefits. The Senate welfare reform bill upped the time period to 33 weeks into a pregnancy.
DeLeo said the House leadership bill would balance efforts over the past years to crack down on fraud and abuse with $20 million in supports to better help recipients enter the workforce and end their reliance on welfare.
"If we're going to talk about the need to get folks off of public assistance then we, as (Rep.) Kay Khan would say, need to give them the path to do so," DeLeo said.
One progressive Democrat seemed bothered by aspects of the bill after the lengthy caucus meeting, but expressed reluctance at trying to encapsulate her concerns while she waited for an elevator.
"Definitely a work in progress. I think there are places it could be spruced up to better serve its stated purpose," said Rep. Denise Provost, a Somerville Democrat, pausing as she contemplated what she wanted to say. "I'm concerned about more clarity around education and training and some of the things not in the bill yet."