DFL legislators in the House appear poised to challenge Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty's proposed cuts to the state's welfare programs.
A budget proposal released Monday by Rep. Thomas Huntley, DFL-Duluth, contains few of the cuts that the governor proposed earlier this year.
Huntley chairs the House Health and Human Services committee and said his budget prioritizes the needs of the poorest Minnesotans.
"We tried to minimize the cuts, so that we would not destroy institutions that we're going to need for the next three years when the economy gets better, but we do have some serious cuts," Huntley said.
Earlier this year, the governor had proposed cuts to the Minnesota Family Investment Program, a welfare program for families. The cuts would mean that most families with a disabled parent or child would lose their cash grants. Huntley's budget does not include these cuts, although it does include other changes to the program.
Pawlenty has also proposed eliminating a welfare program for adults without children. The General Assistance program provides up to $203 a month in welfare payments to about 19,000 disabled or sick Minnesotans living in poverty. The program provides the only cash assistance for many homeless adults. Huntley said the program is vital.
"These are very low-income people, most of them below 25 percent of poverty, which means they're so ill that they really can't work," he said. "This $203 simply basically keeps them alive."
Huntley's budget preserves the General Assistance program.
Freddy Toran says that would be good news for him. Last month, he moved from a homeless shelter into a subsidized apartment in Minneapolis. Toran said he depends on the General Assistance program to pay his rent and cover his basic needs. He was diagnosed with glaucoma several years ago and is unable to work.
"I'll be able to stay in my new place, pay my rent," he said. "I don't want to go back on the streets again."
But Toran said he knows the budget process is far from over. And he still worries that the program could be cut.
"It's just like you climbing a ladder and you get to the top and someone's there just waiting to push you right back down again," he said. "That's not nice. That's not good. That's not pretty at all."
Huntley's bill also preserves funding for State Operated Services, a program that provides direct care to people with mental illness. The governor had proposed eliminating 200 full-time positions from the program.
Gov. Pawlenty's office and the Department of Human Services did not respond immediately to requests for comment on the House DFL proposal. The governor has said the cuts are necessary to resolve the state's $1 billion dollar budget deficit.
If the General Assistance program is cut from the final budget, it would be part of a national trend of reducing welfare benefits for single adults.
Twenty-nine states do not provide any cash assistance to poor adults without children, according to a 2009 study by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy. Many other states have reduced their programs to cover just a small percentage of adults living in poverty.
Sheila Zedlewski is a welfare policy analyst with the D.C.-based Urban Institute. She said that state budget deficits have put poor adults in even greater jeopardy of losing the welfare programs they rely on.
"It's not a population that has a lot of political support," Zedlewski said. "People want to help children and don't want them to suffer if their families don't have jobs and income, but there's less sympathy for the single adults. They seem to get the brunt when cuts are being made."
ADVOCATES AMBIVALENT TOWARD BILL
Advocates for the poor expressed relief that Huntley's budget does not include the cuts to General Assistance, but they criticized other aspects of the bill.
"It's a mix," said Liz Kuoppala, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless. "We knew they were going to make deep cuts. We're very pleased that General Assistance isn't cut."
Huntley's budget does including spending reductions, including cuts to a program designed to create jobs for people living in poverty.
The budget would also change the asset limits for the Minnesota Family Investment Program. Currently, a Minnesota Family Investment Program recipient cannot own a vehicle valued at over $15,000. The new budget would change that amount to $7,500.
The bill would also reduce the income of people enrolled in the Minnesota Family Investment Program who live in public housing by $100. Current law reduces welfare recipients' income by $50 if they live in public housing.
Kuoppala criticized the measure.
"If this $100 cash grant means that a mom can't buy a bus ticket to get to work anymore so she has to lose her job, that's going to have a rippling effect," she said.
The House Health and Human Services Finance committee will vote on Huntley's budget this week. The DFL-controlled Senate has yet to offer a Health and Human Services budget.
The legislature has three weeks left to come up with a budget solution before it must adjourn.