Naked City

Farewell Reform

Despite biting criticism from several key Democratic lawmakers, Gov. George W. Bush took steps last week to permanently cut off welfare benefits to thousands of Texans up to three years sooner than state law requires. On Thursday, the governor sent a letter to Washington that will effectively subject Texas to a federal welfare law enacted in 1996, which limited lifetime welfare benefits to five years. The change will permanently push an estimated 10,000 children and 5,500 adults off the welfare rolls.

Currently, Texas operates under its own welfare law, enacted in 1995, which contains no lifetime limits on benefits but which freezes welfare recipients out of assistance for five years after they receive benefits for one to three years. The state is not required to comply with the federal five-year caps until 2002, as long as the governor informs the feds annually of instances where Texas' welfare law differs from federal rules. Because Bush neglected to do so, the federal government will assume that the state is in compliance with federal rules that started the countdown for lifetime caps in 1996 (when Congress passed its welfare law) instead of 2002, when the federal law was set to kick in. That means that not only will Texas have lifetime caps years earlier than required, those caps will be retroactive to 1996.

Bush's aides say he made the decision to apply the lifetime caps retroactively based on a study performed by the Center for Public Policy Priorities, an advocacy group for low-income Texans, in early 1997, which questioned what impact the new federal regulations would have on Texas law. But CPPP representatives say that report was trumped by laws enacted in 1997 and 1999, which updated Texas' welfare regulations and brought them closer to compliance with federal law. "In the 1997 session, legislators responded to the new federal requirements and decided to continue operating with the waiver and not start the time clock ticking yet. They decided the same thing in 1999," said Eva de Luna, a CPPP policy analyst. "So the governor's office is taking a preliminary analysis and using it as a justification after the fact to make these lifetime caps retroactive." Changes made at the federal level in April 1999 buttressed the state's position by allowing states to keep operating their welfare programs under waiver conditions until 2000, 2002, or 2004, rather than forcing them to come into compliance immediately, as had been proposed.

But Bush spokeswoman Linda Edwards says that since Texas law is silent on the issue of lifetime caps, it stands to reason that the state is subject to the five-year federal limit. "The whole point of welfare reform is to give people the incentives and assistance they need to move from welfare to work," Edwards said. "Both state and federal laws have time limits in place that are designed to give people [that] incentive."

Not surprisingly, Bush's move infuriated several lawmakers who helped craft Texas' welfare reform law in 1995, including Democratic Reps. Elliott Naishtat and Garnet Coleman, who said the governor's decision was a clear subversion of legislative intent. "If you tell me that the text of the law is silent on the issue [of lifetime caps], I'd point out that in the discussion that went on, the decision was made not to include lifetime caps," said Houston rep Coleman, who co-sponsored the welfare bill. "He's following the letter of the law because the letter is silent on this issue, but the spirit and intent are not, and in most cases intent is part of the law." Mike Lucas, an aide to Health and Human Services Committee chair Naishtat, confirmed after listening to tapes of debate on the bill that legislators had discussed and rejected the option of lifetime caps. "They knew they were consciously choosing not to have them in there," Lucas said.

Bush's decision not to list the inconsistency in Texas law was made partly in response to a memo written by Larry E. Temple, director of welfare initiatives for the Texas Workforce Commission, in which Temple characterized the federal certification process as "an unprecedented opportunity for Governor Bush to ensure that the state's welfare reform effort remains on the philosophical track that complements his vision for Texas." But opponents of Bush's decision say the move smacked of politics, not philosophy. "Quite frankly, I thought we were supposed to let Texans run Texas. But this says, let's let the federal government run Texas," said Coleman. Moreover, according to a Sept. 23 memo from Department of Human Services Commissioner Eric Bost, it's unclear whether welfare recipients have been informed that their benefits will be cut off early, making the sudden change particularly cruel for families who will be caught unaware. "We always say, 'Play by the rules.' But when the rules are unclear, inconsistent, and change in the middle of the game, then there's a problem," Coleman said.

Bush aides point out that the sanctions will not begin until around 2006, thanks to the five-year freeze-out provision. As a result, they said, the first children affected by the change in the law will be in their teens when they are forced off the welfare rolls. But the more significant date, Coleman says, may be 2001, when Bush could face a Democratic opponent in the general election for president. "They're saying, 'It doesn't matter who we make enemies with, because we're not going to be here in two years,'" Coleman said. "They just made up their minds and did this, and that is the biggest disappointment of all."

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