Government & Politics

Brownback signs welfare restrictions bill that drew national criticism

Gov. Sam Brownback shook hands with Phyllis Gilmore, Department for Children and Families secretary, after signing a welfare reform bill into law Thursday in Topeka.
Gov. Sam Brownback shook hands with Phyllis Gilmore, Department for Children and Families secretary, after signing a welfare reform bill into law Thursday in Topeka. AP

Gov. Sam Brownback signed a bill Thursday that will establish stricter requirements for welfare eligibility, set shorter time limits for how long a person can receive benefits and place new restrictions on where a beneficiary can spend money.

Brownback touted the bill as a way to promote self reliance and lift people out of poverty by pushing them back into the workforce at a signing ceremony held at the Department for Children and Families’ service center in Topeka.

The governor and DCF Secretary Phyllis Gilmore pushed back against national criticism that has been levied against HB 2258 in recent weeks. Gilmore called the bill the most comprehensive welfare reform passed by any state in the country.

“We encourage other states to look to Kansas on how to help end government dependency,” Gilmore said. She said the policies are aimed at helping low-income people achieve self-sufficiency and called government dependency a “disservice to the individual, a disservice to our culture and certainly a disservice to the taxpayer.”

The bill enshrines in law several policies adopted during Brownback’s first term, including a requirement that able-bodied adults work a minimum of 20 hours a week or go through a job training program in order to qualify for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. DCF credits this policy with putting more than 6,000 people back into the workforce last year.

By signing the law, Brownback ensures that the policies will continue after he leaves office.

But the features of the bill that have gained national attention are the policies that were tacked on by the Legislature – to the noticeable frustration of Brownback and Gilmore – including a prohibition against spending TANF money at a wide variety of businesses including movie theaters, massage parlors, cruise ships and swimming pools.

“The primary focus of the bill is to get people back to work,” Brownback said. “Because that’s where the real benefit is getting people off public assistance and back into the marketplace with the dignity and far more income there than the pittance that government gives them.

“And I hope we don’t lose track of the primary focus of what we’re after here.”

Brownback said that employment is one of the main factors in lifting a person gets out of poverty. He added that family structure was the most important factor.

However, some elements of bill have drawn criticism for being anti-family. If a person is found to be committing benefits fraud, both that person and other adults living in the same home would receive a lifetime ban from receiving public assistance dollars. Critics say this provision would penalize people for being married if one spouse abuses the system without the other’s knowledge.

Brownback said this provision of the bill would have to be watched closely and if it created problems could be changed in the future. Another restriction in the bill would place a lifetime ban on receiving food assistance if a person is convicted of two drug felonies.

Brownback said that he is open to revisiting provisions of the bill if practical problems arise after the bill goes into effect on July 1.

“I’m open to revisiting all of it, if it’s not working,” he said. “If it’s working to get people back into the marketplace and back on their feet, I want to see us to continue to be strong.”

Democrats have been critical of the legislation, which they say is mean-spirited.

“Child poverty and homelessness in Kansas are at record levels … And, now, the governor has signed a punitive and highly judgmental piece of legislation that imposes illogical reforms that make it harder for Kansans in need to break the cycle and climb out of poverty,” said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, in an e-mail. “This is just one more example of how Sam Brownback is out of touch with the real world and has our state on the wrong path."

House Minority Leader Tom Burroughs, D-Kansas City, said the bill “does nothing to address the root causes of poverty in our state.”

“Rather than passing mean-spirited bills that demean the poor in their time of greatest need, we should focus on providing quality education and creating economic opportunity to ensure that all Kansans have a fair chance to succeed,” Burroughs said.

Gilmore did not give a specific answer on what penalty beneficiaries would face if they tried to spend their money at a restricted business such as a tattoo parlor. She said this would constitute a policy violation but not benefits fraud.

Another provision in the bill limits the amount of TANF money a person can withdraw from ATM to $25 a day. Rep. Travis Couture-Lovelady, R-Palco, said that these two provisions were meant to ensure that the money is spent on necessities.

When asked whether he thought that poor people couldn’t be trusted to spend their benefits money responsibly, Couture-Lovelady responded, “Most can. Absolutely most can.

"Just because most people don’t commit murder doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep it legal,” he said. “The key point is that it hurts the folks who are using the program in the correct manner when the money is spent in these incorrect manners.”

Shannon Cotsoradis, president of the advocacy group Kansas Action for Children, said that the bill does more than just restrict where welfare recipients can spend their money. She highlighted that the legislation would require a woman to return to work shortly after having a baby in order to keep her assistance and that the bill makes it more difficult to qualify for childcare assistance.

"By signing this bill into law, Gov. Brownback has added to the burden that the poorest Kansans already carry. … It’s always been hard to be poor in Kansas. Now, it’s going to be a lot harder,” Cotsoradis said in an e-mail.

Valerie Cahill, a former TANF beneficiary, spoke in support of the law at the governor’s signing ceremony. Cahill, a Wyandotte County resident, was Brownback’s guest at the State of the State address and testified on behalf of the legislation during its hearings in the House and Senate.

Cahill said she was on TANF for 11 months and has been working since 2014 after going through the state’s job training program. She shared an anecdote of how with money from her paycheck she was able to buy her son, a musician, his first cello and added that she never could have done that while on TANF.

After the ceremony, Cahill declined to say what her new job is, but she did say it was “state-related.”

Reach Bryan Lowry at 785-296-3006 or blowry@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @BryanLowry3.

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