Pa. Republicans, Democrats stake out positions in general assistance battle

They already got rid of it once before, in 2012. But the program landed back on the GOP chopping block after the state Supreme Court revived it last year on a technicality.

The state Capitol building in Harrisburg. (Tom Downing/WITF)

The state Capitol building in Harrisburg. (Tom Downing/WITF)

Republicans took a first step Monday toward one of their top goals for this legislative session: repealing Pennsylvania’s general assistance program, which gives small sums of cash to poor people.

They already got rid of it once before, in 2012. But the program landed back on the GOP chopping block after the state Supreme Court revived it last year on a technicality.

Before it was cut, general assistance had a budget of $150 million annually and served around 70,000 people. Less than 10,000 people have taken advantage of it in the first year of its reinstatement, and Gov. Tom Wolf requested $50 million to continue the program in his budget proposal for next fiscal year.

People who receive general assistance don’t qualify for other aid, like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, because they don’t have dependents. The roughly $200 a month they get from GA helps them buy things food stamps don’t cover.

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Westmoreland County Republican George Dunbar is sponsoring the bill to get rid of the program. He said he is dismayed that it’s up and running without the general assembly voting to fund it.

But more fundamentally, he said he doesn’t think there is enough assurance that GA is really helping people out of poverty.

“Every time we spend money there, we are not able to spend it somewhere else where it may be better used,” he said. “I can’t judge from a program like this, because the accountability standards are so low, where the money is spent.”

Dunbar’s bill passed the House Health Committee on party lines.

Democrats introduced eight unsuccessful amendments in an attempt to carve out exceptions that would keep different groups of people covered — for instance, victims of domestic violence, people in rehab, and those waiting for disability payments.

Allegheny County freshman Sara Innamorato had a personal reason for supporting general assistance. She said her father accumulated massive debt while in rehabilitation for the opioid addiction he struggled with for her entire life.

“He ended up dead on the side of a highway in Florida,” Innamorato said. “He died alone and without dignity.”

Around ten percent of GA recipients, she said, are in rehabilitation for drug addiction.

Health Committee Chair Kathy Rapp requested her members, who hold a majority in the committee, to vote “no” on all the attempted amendments.

She said it was about time constraints — the committee meeting ran close to a scheduled floor session.

“Does that mean I don’t agree with helping people that are referred to in those amendments? No, it doesn’t,” she said. But “it was just better to let the process move.”

Ultimately, the general assistance repeal probably won’t pass as a solo bill.

Wolf supports the program in principle. After the committee passage, his office released a statement saying he opposes “outright repeal of general assistance with no plan to transition these individuals to other assistance,” calling the effort “inhumane and inappropriate governing.”

However, the issue is expected to be worked into the state budget process, when Republicans will have more bargaining power over Wolf.

In anticipation of that fight, Wolf included GA funding in his spending proposal to lawmakers but opened the door to a compromise: keep the $50 million in the budget, but shift it to the housing assistance program PHARE.

Republicans have been noncommittal so far, but many Democrats and advocates, like Maria Pulzetti with Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, oppose Wolf’s plan.

“We absolutely want to preserve general assistance as it exists because it reaches the most vulnerable Pennsylvanians,” she said. “It’s very difficult to reach the same population through a housing program because there’s such a shortage of low-income housing.”

It’s not clear if, or when, the bill axing general assistance will be considered by the full House.

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