Advocacy groups attempt to halt imminent General Assistance repeal

A pedestrian walks by the state Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Friday, June 28, 2019.  (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

A pedestrian walks by the state Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Friday, June 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Two advocacy groups are suing Pennsylvania’s Department of Human Services over the repeal of a small cash assistance program for poor people who don’t qualify for other aid.

The move has been expected ever since the GOP-controlled legislature shoehorned the contentious repeal into a budget bill, and Democratic Governor Tom Wolf signed it.

Right now, General Assistance gives roughly 11,000 people about $200 a month.

But come August, the program will disappear if the repeal continues as expected.

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The groups Community Legal Services and Disability Rights Pennsylvania are hoping Commonwealth Court justices grant them an injunction so that the program can keep running until they make a ruling.

Community Legal Services Attorney Maria Pulzetti said they’re arguing that the way the legislature passed the repeal is unconstitutional because it violates what’s known as the single-subject rule.

The bill that aimed to end General Assistance also included money for Philadelphia hospitals, among other things.

“That type of legislative tactic is exactly what Article III Section 3 was written in the late 19thcentury to curtail,” Pulzetti said.

She noted, there is some precedent for the argument CLS is making.

Last year, the state Supreme Court ruled that a previous General Assistance repeal, enacted in 2012, was invalid for a similar constitutional reason. In that case, they said, lawmakers had passed it too quickly, violating Article III, Section 1, which says legislation must be considered on three different days without significant changes.

But in their decision, the justices also footnoted a parallel.

“Our court,” they wrote, “utilizes the same germaneness test to determine whether the manner of passage of a bill violates Article III, Section 1 and Article III, Section 3 [the single subject rule].”

Thus, they continued, “a finding that amendments to a bill made during the legislative process are not germane to the subject of its original provisions will also support a determination that the bill’s passage violated these constitutional provisions as well.”

Governor Wolf has said he supports General Assistance, but felt his hands were tied by the way Republicans passed the bill.

The Department of Human Services did not return a request for comment.

A lawyer for Senate Republicans, who have previously defended the legality of the repeal’s passage, also did not comment.

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