Legislature(2001 - 2002)
04/24/2002 09:16 AM FIN
* first hearing in first committee of referral
= bill was previously heard/scheduled
= bill was previously heard/scheduled
SENATE CS FOR CS FOR HOUSE BILL NO. 402(HES) "An Act relating to diversion payments, wage subsidies, cash assistance, and self- sufficiency services provided under the Alaska temporary assistance program; relating to the food stamp program; relating to child support cases that include persons who receive cash assistance or self-sufficiency services under the Alaska temporary assistance program; and providing for an effective date." This was the first hearing for this bill in the Senate Finance Committee. REPRESENTATIVE FRED DYSON, the bill's sponsor, informed the Committee that the previous year, an outside audit [copy not on file] had conducted on the State's public assistance plan, and that the recommendations of that audit "are encapsulated in this bill." He stated that this bill represents the "next step in welfare programs," by placing "in statute and practice the whole concept of work first." He communicated that the emphasis of this program is to take a combination of "public assistance monies, food stamp monies and other available funding to subsidize employment for welfare applicants." He stated, "it is a paradigm shift" for when a person applies for welfare benefits, instead of being placed on welfare and receiving a welfare check, they are first directed toward becoming employed and receiving a paycheck. He stated that this approach to the welfare system has been successful in the State of Oregon where the people in the program have had significant success in retaining their jobs, and the private sector is delighted to "get workers to fill jobs that were marginally economical before." He noted this proposed program is supported by the Administration and the Department of Health and Social Services. Representative Dyson qualified that two components of this bill are not endorsed by the Administration: the first being the more stringent sanctions placed on individuals who do not comply with the directives to obtain employment; and the second being a program participant limit of 25 percent of the total number of eligible welfare recipients. He stated that the Administration favors no restriction on the number of participants in the program at any given time. He informed that the 25 percent cap is based on both Alaska's employment studies as well as the Oregon program's experience. He urged the Committee to support the bill as presented. Senator Leman commended Representative Dyson, Senator Green and the Department for their constructive work on this bill. He endorsed the legislation and stated that the Senate Health Education and Social Services committee substitute is an acceptable compromise for it instills incentives for the Department of Health and Social Services to revise the welfare program as the Legislature intends, in a "compassionate" manner. Co-Chair Donley stated that his inclination is to trust Representative Dyson and Senator Green's judgment. He asked why national studies imply that Alaska has exerted minimal efforts in addressing welfare reform. Representative Dyson responded that statistics indicate "a remarkable reduction" of the number of individuals on welfare in the State. He stated "there needs to be a cultural shift," to find jobs, help create jobs and to employ the people needing these jobs, which involves hiring administrative people with a "passion and vision," in addition to adopting enabling State statutes. He stated it is the Legislature's duty to enact legislation to support the process, and "it is the Administration's job to find the people who really have a passion" to make the changes happen. Senator Green noted that as part of the federal welfare reform legislation, Congress granted "American Indian waiver" status to the State of Alaska that allows Native people who are residing in rural areas or other areas of the State where "economic non- viability" limits employment opportunities, to be exempt from the five-year (60-month) limitation on welfare benefits. She stated that because the "substantial number of people" granted waivers are not included in the total number of participants in which the 25 percent limitation is calculated, she supports the proposed 25 percent cap. She informed the Committee that the limitation on participation in the federal work-first program is 20 percent and that the State of Oregon, which has a higher number of exempted individuals than Alaska, has a 30 percent cap. Co-Chair Donley asked whether there is a limit on how long people could receive welfare benefits. Representative Dyson responded that there is a limit of 60-months; however, unlimited waivers are granted to "severely handicapped" individuals or those who serve as caretakers to a handicapped child. Representative Dyson voiced concern that the Department would grant waivers to individuals "just because there is no job in their area." He asserted that people should live in areas where job opportunities exist, and he exampled that Alaska's indigenous people historically followed caribou herds; in other words they, "moved to where the resource was." Representative Dyson stated that the Department of Health and Social Services has assured him that waivers would not be granted to people "just because" they live in an area with limited job opportunities. He expressed that the proposed program would provide training and other life skills with the expectation that people would relocate. Senator Green expressed that this legislation would provide the Department "with a great tool" to encourage some welfare benefit recipients "who have been reluctant or have refused" to participate in job training programs or go for interviews, to reenter the work force. She stated the current system is inefficient and "doesn't serve either the Department or the client well at all" as there is no incentive for people to seek employment; wherein, the proposed legislation would deny benefits to individuals if they refuse to participate in the training and employment program. JIM NORDLUND, Director, Division of Public Assistance, Department of Health and Social Services, stated that Representative Dyson and Senator Green have presented the bill in an accurate manner. Senator Green asked the testifier whether the Department would offer any recommendations to the Governor regarding signing this bill into law. Mr. Nordlund commented that the final version of bill would be a factor in any recommendation. He stated that the Department supports no limitation on the number of participants in the program because State law specifies criteria as to who would or would not be eligible. However, he noted that the proposed 25 percent cap is an improvement over the current 20 percent limit. He stated that the Department's concerns about denial of benefits to people who do not participate in the program have been addressed in the committee substitute. Co-Chair Kelly ordered the bill HELD in Committee.