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Senators back welfare extension
By Michael Khoo
Minnesota Public Radio
December 19, 2001

A group of lawmakers wants to lift temporarily the state's five-year limit on welfare benefits. They argue the recession makes it difficult for welfare recipients to meet work requirements necessary to receive an extension of benefits, and they're asking for a three-year reprieve. But House Republicans and the Ventura administration are skeptical.

Sen. John Hottinger
Sens. John Hottinger of Mankato and Linda Berglin of Minneapolis unveiled a plan to delay the federally mandated five-year welfare benefit limit. They say it would most likely push the cutoff date past the current recession.
(MPR Photo/Michael Khoo)

The state Department of Human Services predicts 2,700 families are due to hit the five-year limit on welfare benefits next July. Last session, the Legislature agreed to extend benefits for beneficiaries who face significant physical or mental health problems, or who work at least 30 hours a week.

But Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis, says those work requirements were drafted before the economy stumbled.

"I think the recession is real concern. When those criteria were established, we were not anticipating being in a recession. And I think the true test of welfare reform is how well you do with it during a recession. And so I believe these are issues that really are calling us for addressing them," Berglin said.

Berglin chairs the Senate budget committee for Health, Human Services, and Corrections. She and other Democrats hope to suspend the time limit for three years, but she is unable to provide a price tag for the package.

House Republicans say they have no interest in lifting the time limit. Speaker Steve Sviggum says the program encourages recipients to find stable employment.

"We think that's an important incentive. We think that it's very, very important from the humane standpoint that you provide people that self-respect, that self-dignity of having a job. And we do not plan on backing off from welfare reform," Sviggum said.

Democrats say the difficult economic times change the equation. Assistant Senate Majority Leader John Hottinger says extending benefits would help jumpstart the economy by putting more cash in the hands of consumers. The Mankato DFLer says temporarily lifting the time limit is not backing off; he says it would actually solidify gains made in recent years.

"The goal of welfare reform in part was to get people engaged and connected to the economy, connected to the workforce. And it's been very successful in that regard because we've had a good economy. If we lose them by abandoning them when they become victims of that economy, we have lost the benefits - to the extent there are - of the welfare reform proposal," Hottinger said.

The Ventura administration largely supported more lenient welfare extensions during the last legislative session. But now, the Human Services Department says re-opening the debate could lead to a protracted and contentious debate.

Chuck Johnson oversees the department's Families with Children Division. He says the administration considers the discussion closed. "Now we feel that need to move forward and try to implement what is in the law. And we're just concerned that re-opening this discussion is going to sidetrack those efforts," Johnson said.

Johnson says it's difficult to predict how much the proposed change in welfare laws would cost - in part, because lifting the time limit could change the behavior of recipients. But he says whatever the cost, it would have to be found in the cash-strapped state budget. He says all eligible federal dollars have already been allocated for other programs.

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