Legislature(2001 - 2002)
04/09/2001 01:35 PM HES
* first hearing in first committee of referral
= bill was previously heard/scheduled
= bill was previously heard/scheduled
SB 116-AK TEMP. ASSISTANCE PROGRAM AMENDMENTS CHAIRWOMAN GREEN noted that a proposed committee substitute to SB 116 was before the committee. SENATOR LEMAN moved to adopt Version F as the working draft of the committee. There being no objection, the motion carried. MR. JIM NORDLUND, Director of the Division of Public Assistance, said SB 116 makes amendments to the Alaska Temporary Assistance Program (ATAP), which was created when Alaska's welfare reform act was enacted in 1996 [SB 98 by Senator Green]. SB 98 is a very robust law that has enabled the division to reform Alaska's welfare system and to successfully move welfare recipients from welfare into the workforce. SB 116 is the first attempt to make any amendments to that law. One section of SB 116 is important; the others are minor modifications. MR. NORDLUND said the section that was in SB 116 that was removed from Version F dealt with the 60 month lifetime limit on benefits. Both the federal and state laws allow 20 percent of the caseload to be exempt from the five-year limit. Congress and the Legislature recognized that, inevitably, some welfare recipients will have to receive benefits beyond 60 months because certain conditions prevent them from working and providing for their families. He pointed out the 20 percent waiver applied to the original caseload, which amounted to about 12,000 families at the time, before welfare reform was instituted. The division has projected that when the 60 month limit hits in July of 2002, the caseload will be below 6,000 so the 20 percent waiver will only apply to about 1200 clients. He explained that if 20 percent originally applied to the 12,000, one can assume those families have severe problems that will not go away. The division predicts that in future years (2003 and 2004) it will have to cut people off of the caseload who all would agree should continue to receive assistance. MR. NORDLUND said the bill as introduced by the Governor simply repeals the 20 percent cap. Instead of using that arbitrary figure, the division suggested establishing objective, strict criteria by which families would be allowed to receive assistance beyond 60 months. The families that fit the criteria would receive an extension rather than a lifelong exemption. He explained that section 2 would have repealed that cap [AS 47.27.015(f)]. MR. NORDLUND said he discussed alternative solutions with Senator Green and Representative Dyson. Senator Green was concerned that putting the criteria in regulation was too loose of an approach. On proposal was to put the criteria in statute. Representative Dyson suggested applying the 20 percent waiver to the original number of recipients, which would give the division enough room to cover the number of families that need continual assistance. After further discussions with Senator Green, she decided to pursue a solution to that problem next year so Section 2 was removed altogether. Because that section was the heart of the bill, it will have to be dealt with at some point. CHAIRWOMAN GREEN asked Mr. Nordlund to review the provisions of Version F. MR. NORDLUND said that Section 1 of Version F deals with the conformity issue with federal law. Under federal law, families that live in Native villages with unemployment rates over 50 percent, as determined by state data, are exempt from the 60 month limit. Alaska law does not contain a similar provision so Section 1 will bring Alaska's statute into conformity with the federal law. It was not in the original version of SB 116 because removing the 20 percent cap would have taken care of the problem. SENATOR WARD asked what qualifies as a Native village. MR. NORDLUND said that definition comes from the list of federally recognized villages. SENATOR WARD asked if this applies to the 226 villages recognized by the Ada Deere case. MR. NORDLUND said he believes so. SENATOR WARD asked if it applies to the federally recognized tribes or whether it applies to a place like Egegik. MR. NORDLUND offered to get an answer for the committee. CHAIRWOMAN GREEN said she did not realize this bill applied to the federally recognized tribes. Number 428 MS. KRISTEN BOMENGEN, assistant attorney general, Department of Law, said she does not believe the federal welfare reform law referred to the federally recognized tribes. She offered to provide the definition to the committee at a later date. CHAIRWOMAN GREEN asked if that originally applied to a Native village or a rural village. MR. NORDLUND said the federal law uses the word "reservations" so it was trying to replicate that in Alaska. He again offered to get the specific language for the committee. CHAIRWOMAN GREEN commented that the economy of the village was supposed to trigger the waiver. MS. BOMENGEN said she believes Alaska's statutory language simply refers to that provision in the federal law. CHAIRWOMAN GREEN asked if Section 1, as written, addresses that concern. MS. BOMENGEN said it does. MR. NORDLUND said Section 2 is in response to a lawsuit that DHSS lost. MS. BOMENGEN explained the case was a challenge to DHSS regulations that were generated under the statute as it formerly read. Under those regulations, the basis for the 50 percent reduction was an evaluation of the employment of the family's principal wage earner. That language was borrowed from the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) statute in effect at the time. That program had three different categories based on deprivation. The third category was created for two-parent families that had an attachment to the workforce. If the wage earner was unemployed, the family could qualify for the AFDC benefit. That terminology was borrowed because the AFDC statute was in effect when this law was being written. DHSS then made, in regulation, an attempt to distinguish two-parent families in which one of the parents was incapacitated. The court determined that the plain language of this statute indicated a different kind of evaluation than the one used by DHSS and overruled the regulation. MR. NORDLUND said when he researched why this provision was originally chosen, he found that language was chosen before federal welfare reform was on the horizon. DHSS took two approaches: Senator Green's waiver approach, which assumed that law would not pass and the Governor's approach, which assumed that it would. The language had to be consistent with AFDC if it was to be in effect, assuming federal welfare reform didn't occur. Borrowing that language made sense at the time, but the problem now is that the court interpreted that language literally when the law intended it to apply to two-parent families despite the unemployment status or who was the principal wage earner. The danger is, if this part of the law is not changed, DHSS might have to go back and pay benefits to two-parent families in the summer, which he does not think was the Legislature's intent. CHAIRWOMAN GREEN asked if the language in Section 2 addresses the crux of the problem. MR. NORDLUND said the language does address the court case but the language in the committee substitute does not contain language from the original bill that exempts a two-parent family from the benefit cut if one parent is incapacitated. ATAP has exempted such families for the last four years so the committee substitute would make a policy change. He was not sure that was the Legislature's intent. CHAIRWOMAN GREEN asked if the committee substitute would treat the two-parent family of which one parent is incapacitated the same as a "whole" two-parent family. MR. NORDLUND said that is correct. CHAIRWOMAN GREEN asked Mr. Nordlund what the court directed DHSS to do and whether the original bill contains the minimum language. MS. BOMENGEN said the language proposed in the original bill would maintain the status quo. It provides for the fourth category of eligibility that is provided for in ATAP with one exception for the incapacitated parent. The language in the committee substitute sets a clear line that establishes that all two-parent families are subject to the reduction and DHSS could not change that. CHAIRWOMAN GREEN asked if DHSS prefers the language in the original bill regarding the provision. MS. BOMENGEN said it does. CHAIRWOMAN GREEN asked if anything in that language is superfluous and is not required for DHSS's needs. MS. BOMENGEN said no. CHAIRWOMAN GREEN asked what has been added to address the lawsuit. MS. BOMENGEN explained the question is what has been subtracted. CHAIRWOMEN GREEN asked if she was speaking of the phrase, "the unemployment of the family's principal wage earner." MS. BOMENGEN said that term is no longer examined by the department and is no longer useful because it doesn't really give the public fair notice of what is being established. She thought the court felt that the law contained plain language while DHSS was telling the court it did not have to look at unemployment because it does not use that as an eligibility factor any longer. Number 599 SENATOR WARD asked if the committee substitute as is would not satisfy the court. MS. BOMENGEN said, "This language is beside the fact. The court didn't address this. What the court addressed was that we had language that didn't clearly state what we were doing in the language that we've extracted. It's good to extract it. The language here is a policy change. It does not keep the program at the status quo, it instead changes so that more families will receive the two-parent - the 50 percent reduction during those summer months because it ... TAPE 01-31, SIDE B [MS BOMENGEN continued.] ... the exception that the division was able to recognize because it was borrowed from the AFDC concept. The court doesn't have an opinion about what the policy is that is adopted here. If that is the policy that this committee chooses, that's beside the point for the court." SENATOR WARD asked what, in Ms. Bomengen's opinion, the court has asked the legislature to do, if anything. MS. BOMENGEN said the court has asked DHSS, as long as the statute contains the language "unemployment of the family's principal wage earner" to make an evaluation of the employment status of the principal wage earner. The court has not asked the legislature to change the law, it has only said this is what DHSS must do under the existing law. SENATOR WARD commented that DHSS must write new regulations then. MS. BOMENGEN said it will and it will have to analyze each family's relative unemployment status. CHAIRWOMAN GREEN asked Mr. Nordlund and Ms. Bomengen to provide the committee with a definition of Native villages and she asked for a side-by-side comparison of the two versions of the bill. She commented that the less language that must be added to create additional exceptions the better, and that it is her intent to perfect that language. SENATOR WARD asked, regarding the people who will never be able to get off of public assistance, at what point in time they should be transferred to another program. He asked if there has been any discussion about other possible programs that might be addressed in this bill. MR. NORDLUND said a number of states have done that. Some ATAP clients have disabilities or incapacities that are not severe enough to qualify for social security income but they are severe enough to prevent those clients from holding a job. He agrees that finding a way to transfer those clients to a different program is a good idea that needs to be explored as DHSS learns more about how many clients will fall in this category. For now, they can continue to be served under ATAP as long as there is room under the cap but as more people hit the 60 month limit, that cap will be reached.