Politics & Government

Welfare debate ending?

Separately from the main budget debate in Olympia, Gov. Chris Gregoire and lawmakers have been tackling a huge shortfall in the welfare-to-work budget, forcing them to reduce $2 billion in planned spending by roughly one-fifth.

That work may be nearing an end, after they reached broad strokes of a deal Thursday. Gregoire’s cuts that have reduced aid to the poor will stand, including a smaller cash benefit and a five-year lifetime limit on the cash, but further cuts to aid may be avoided.

Some fellow Democrats didn’t like the cuts, which fueled a proposal in the Legislature to take over control of welfare spending. But that has fizzled, and Washington’s governor appears likely to remain at the controls for future decisions – with lawmakers potentially playing a greater supporting role.

“This has historically been a very contentious issue between the Legislature and the governor’s office, and I feel we have really crossed a major threshold,” said Rep. Ruth Kagi, D-Lake Forest Park.

Still to come in the special legislative session: final details on what the Legislature will do to prevent misuse of welfare money, which could include making it a crime to spend the cash on cigarettes, alcohol, tattoos or strippers.

That idea may run into resistance, but calls for tougher enforcement have already led to some changes. Gregoire’s administration is beefing up the unit tasked with finding fraud in state benefits and rearranging its leadership.


Social and Health Services Secretary Susan Dreyfus announced in March that she would add six criminal investigators to more than double the team and place it directly under her as a new Office of Fraud and Accountability. For its leader, she replaced John Bumford, who retired as part of the shakeup, with former Franklin County Prosecutor Steve Lowe.

Dreyfus also is bringing in former U.S. Attorney Jim McDevitt to review her fraud-fighting operation, which Republican lawmakers have complained is too small and hasn’t done enough to curb welfare fraud. The department handed over 98 fraud cases to prosecutors last year, down from more than 2,000 in 1993.

Meanwhile, media reports have provided examples of Electronic Benefits Transfer cards being used to withdraw benefits cash at casinos and strip clubs. A recent report by KING-TV stated that people using state-issued welfare cards had withdrawn about $2 million from ATMs at casinos in a one-year period. The station also documented cards being sold on the street and on Craigslist.

Sen. Mike Carrell, a Lakewood Republican who has been the loudest critic of DSHS on the issue, is now crediting the department on its changes, including plans to emboss cardholders’ names on their cards and stop issuing cards over the counter. The department also has sought to block access to the cards’ cash at ATMs in adult-oriented businesses.

“The department has stepped up and said we have to change some of the ways we’re doing things,” Carrell told senators last week.

Some Democrats, such as Sen. Debbie Regala of Tacoma, said fraud likely is more rare than the public thinks. But Carrell and Regala teamed on a measure supported unanimously by the Senate last week that includes both anti-abuse measures and reforms to how welfare money is spent.

It includes new oversight by the state auditor’s office for welfare fraud. And Sen. Joe Zarelli, a GOP budget writer from Ridgefield, said Senate Bill 5921 also would lead to tougher verification on the hours that day-care providers are billing the state.

It’s unclear which ideas will move forward in the House. Kagi opposes Carrell’s proposals in the measure to make it a gross misdemeanor to use benefits on items such as cigarettes and alcohol. Rather than face criminal prosecution, she said, violators should lose their benefits.


Kagi said many of the changes to how money is spent likely would be approved in the House, such as new assessments of what families need and a legislative-executive task force to look at further changes.

The measure does not take away the governor’s authority. Kagi said welfare changes proposed in the Senate budget plan provide enough legislative direction to avert the need for further turf war over who controls welfare spending.

“I just think it’s an argument everybody’s tired of having,” she said.

The recent deep cuts have:

 • Capped enrollment in the $725 million Working Connections Child Care program’s subsidized day care.

 • Slashed cash payments to $478 for a three-person family, for example, down from $562.

 • Toughened the lifetime limit, drying up cash benefits for more than 5,000 families with long histories of collecting them.

“The thought of them cutting any more out of this bare-bones program is just horrifying,” said Monica Peabody, director of Parents Organizing for Welfare and Economic Rights. “Day by day, more and more families are becoming homeless because of the cuts they’ve already done.”

More large cuts may be averted if accountants decide this week’s tentative deal will yield the $50 million or so in savings that lawmakers expect. It involves scaling back requirements for job searches and training for some families on welfare with very young children.

Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826