Mass. Senate approves plan to reform welfareAP , Associated Press
Jun. 20, 2013 10:30 PM ET
BOSTON (AP) — The Massachusetts Senate on Thursday approved an overhaul of the state's welfare system that seeks to move more people off public benefits and into jobs while reducing fraud and abuse in the system.
The measure, unveiled earlier in the week by Democratic leaders, was passed on a 37-1 vote after senators debated dozens of proposed amendments. The proposal has been touted by its supporters as one of the most comprehensive attempts at welfare reform in the country and the most sweeping in Massachusetts in nearly 20 years.
Under the legislation, able-bodied people seeking welfare benefits would first have to demonstrate that they have tried to get jobs on their own and then would be offered state assistance in their job search, including access to employment listings and skills training.
Sen. Michael Barrett, D-Lexington, said at the outset of the debate that the bill seeks to assure that public assistance is never the "first default choice" for someone.
"We're trying to figure out in the realities of this economy ... how to help you help yourself," Barrett said.
Among the proposals to counter fraud is a requirement that photo IDs be put on all electronic benefit transfer cards used by welfare recipients by August 2014. Critics of the EBT cards, which work much like bank-issued debit cards, say they frequently fall into the hands of unauthorized people.
All welfare recipients would be required to obtain permanent Social Security numbers within three months of receiving benefits, and the bill would fund more fraud investigators and caseworkers within the Department of Transitional Assistance, the state's welfare agency.
Republicans praised the bill but offered several amendments they said would strengthen fraud protections. Among the amendments approved was one calling for tougher penalties for stores that sell prohibited items such as liquor or lottery tickets to EBT cardholders.
Sen. Michael Knapik, R-Westfield, said one of the key reasons for the legislation was the "failure of stewardship over these vital programs."
A recent state audit found more than 1,000 cases of welfare benefits being paid to people who had died or people using Social Security numbers of people who had died. While Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick's administration disputed those figures, the audit and other recent investigations have amped up the pressure to overhaul the system.
Patrick said earlier this week he was encouraged by the Senate bill, though he declined to comment on specific elements.
The bill now moves to the House, which earlier approved an amendment to the state budget calling for photo IDs on EBT cards.