State House Sound Bites

Capitol reporter Katie Meyer covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.
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Judge hears arguments over request to halt elimination of cash grants for poor & other changes

Written by Mary Wilson, Former Capitol Bureau Chief | Oct 23, 2012 4:35 PM

A Commonwealth Court judge will decide whether to stop changes to public welfare programs approved in June.

Advocacy groups filed suit against the state in early October on behalf of three individuals who lost their General Assistance cash grants when the program was zeroed-out by Act 80, passed by state lawmakers and signed by the governor in June. Challengers don’t like that General Assistance was cut – but they’re taking issue with how it was eliminated. The legislation gutting it also changed seven different welfare programs.

Michael Froelich, an attorney with Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, one of the groups in the suit, said the move broke a rule requiring that a piece of legislation only deal with a single subject.

“The way that Act 80 was enacted violated the Pennsylvania state constitution because it rolled these seven very different changes into one bill,” said Froelich.

Commonwealth attorneys argue the measure did have a unifying purpose: public welfare programs.

Act 80 affects things like nursing home assessments, welfare-to-work programs, Medicaid, and adoption subsidies. It also created a pilot program for counties wishing to have more discretion over how to allocate funds for human services.

“We believe that if the Legislature had to vote up or down on whether to eliminate General Assistance, and that was the sole issue presented, and now that they’re sort of they’ve learned more about the heart breaking consequences of eliminating General Assistance, that the vote very likely would come out in a different way,” said Froelich.

Linda Barrett, Deputy General Counsel for the governor’s office, said challengers will not be able to meet the burden of proof necessary to receive a preliminary injunction from Senior Judge Keith B. Quigley.

“I guess we’ll see, won’t we,” said Quigley from the bench.

Challengers will have to show the state faces immediate, irreparable harm if the judge doesn’t block the enacted changes. Emphasis on enacted: the block grant pilot program, for example, is already underway. Act 80 allowed counties to apply to receive a single lump sum from the state for a set of human services programs and use their own discretion when deciding how to divvy up the money, instead of following state formulas. The counties for that program were recently selected.

“It’s too late to restore the parties to the status quo,” said Barrett.

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