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Judge blocks state from cutting welfare programs
Welfare revisions scheduled to take effect Tuesday are on hold after a county judge blocked the state from cutting benefits to thousands of low-income families. Ramsey County District Judge Judith Tilsen halted the benefit cuts with a temporary restraining order Monday, saying she was concerned that some of the changes were being made without federal approval.

St. Paul, Minn. — Lawyers for six disabled plaintiffs argued successfully to keep the state from making cuts to monthly welfare grants, at least for now.

Judge Tilsen approved a three-week restraining order, barring cuts from taking effect during the month of July.

"We're very pleased with the judge's ruling," says St. Cloud Legal Services attorney Rolanda Mason, who argued the case. "We think it was the right decision. And we know that it's going to make a huge difference in the lives of many poor families across the state."

We think it was the right decision. And we know that it's going to make a huge difference in the lives of many poor families across the state.
- Attorney Rolanda Mason

Mason argued, and the judge agreed, that the state must ask permission of the federal government before enacting changes to the state welfare program.

"We want the state to submit their proposed changes to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, so that those changes can be evaluated. We believe that's required by law," says Mason. "If the state is going to go forward to implement the changes to 2003 amendments, they have to get federal approval first."

The state's lawyers say there's no need to get approval from the federal government. Still, Human Services Commissioner Kevin Goodno says the state will comply with the restraining order and apply to the federal government for approval.

About 41,000 Minnesotans currently receive welfare assistance through the Minnesota Family Investment Program, known as MFIP. MFIP is the state version of national welfare reform that went into effect in 1996.

About 7,600 of those on the state welfare rolls are severely disabled, or have dependents who are. They are unable to work and receive some money from a federal program called Supplemental Security Income or SSI.

The Pawlenty administration wants SSI money counted as family income, because that reduces state welfare spending.

Goodno says the changes proposed by Pawlenty, and approved by state lawmakers last session, make the welfare system more equitable.

"These MFIP families -- if you look at the MFIP grant and the SSI grant that's coming in -- have more disposable income to them than families without an SSI recipient," says Goodno. "It's one of those things where we're just looking at additional fairness into the system."

Goodno says the change would save the state $22 million over the next two years.

Minnesota welfare recipients receive a blend of federal cash grants and food stamps. The average MFIP payment is about $640 a month, with about $282 of that in food stamps.

Plaintiffs' lawyers say if that blend of cash and food stamps is reduced, thousands of people would be unable to pay for housing, bills, and food.

The judge has set a hearing for July 21 to consider a more permanent order. Goodno says when the hearing comes around the plaintiffs will have no legal argument. He says he's confident federal approval will be granted.

And, even if it's not, he says the state would consider a more permanent alternative -- separating the federal food stamp program from the state welfare program altogether.

"That takes a little time, that's a little bit more complex," says Goodno. "But if we're going to run into problems with making changes to our welfare system every year, or every time the Legislature meets, and we're going to run into these same type of roadblocks, then we might have to assess if it makes more sense to separate those programs again, so we don't need the authority from the USDA in order to make these changes."

The judge's order also requires the state to restore any cuts that were already made in some recipients' July welfare checks.

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