THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT Copyright (c) 1995, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: Thursday, February 16, 1995 TAG: 9502160372 SECTION: FRONT PAGE: A1 EDITION: FINAL SOURCE: BY MARGARET EDDS, STAFF WRITER DATELINE: RICHMOND LENGTH: Medium: 96 lines
Flexing their narrow legislative majority, General Assembly Democrats pushed a revised welfare reform bill through the Senate on Wednesday and appeared poised to force rapid passage in the House today.
The action could put welfare legislation on Gov. George F. Allen's desk before the week is out. Democrats appeared once again to claim the winning side in a major policy dispute with the Republican governor, skirting an expected standoff between a no-frills welfare-to-work plan favored by Allen and a more protective approach preferred by Democrats.
Essentially, Democrats adopted their own plan but added one of the more popular Republican features - making welfare reform apply statewide. They sped up the GOP timetable, however, by calling for statewide coverage by 1999, two years ahead of the Republican schedule.
GOP lawmakers, on the losing side of the 23-17 vote, unsuccessfully countered that the Democrats' bill is filled with loopholes. The idea that it calls for statewide coverage is misleading, they said, because that feature is contingent on money and approval by future legislatures.
If House Democrats approve the plan as expected today, Allen is left with two primary options: vetoing welfare reform, something he views as a legislative priority; or sending the bill back to the legislature with amendments. But Democrats have the votes to reject any amendments if they continue to vote as a bloc.
The bill is only ``the guise of welfare reform,'' complained Ken Stroupe, spokesman for the governor. He declined to say what action Allen will take if it reaches his desk.
In bills passed earlier in the session, both parties had called for a two-year cap on benefits from Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the basic welfare plan, and a requirement that most of Virginia's 74,000 AFDC recipients work for benefits. But substantial differences in scope and tone had been expected to be worked out over the next week in a six-person conference committee, made up of both Democrats and Republicans.
Instead, a group of Democrats - including Lt. Gov. Donald S. Beyer, Sen. Clarence A. Holland of Virginia Beach and Del. David G. Brickley of Woodbridge - worked over the last few days to avoid that committee and craft a plan on which the Democratic majority could coalesce.
Their aim, said Beyer, was to craft ``tough welfare reform'' that also recognized the need for close supervision and support if welfare recipients are to become independent. In the Republican plan, ``the stick's in there, (but) the carrot part is missing,'' he said.
The opposing sides advanced wildly different estimates of what the two plans would cost, although both acknowledged that the Democrats' plan will cost more. State budget officials last week estimated that the Republican plan would save $465 million over eight years, while the Democrats' plan would save $126 million over the same period.
On Wednesday, Republicans provided what they called tentative, updated figures from the Department of Planning and Budget showing the Democrats' revised plan costing $59 million over the next four years, and theirs saving $136 million over five years.
Holland, who sponsored the revised plan in the Senate, said he'd seen figures suggesting that a plan similar to his would save the commonwealth as much as $101 million over five years.
``You can cook a figure any way you want,'' he said.
Aside from the cost, Republicans complained that the Democrats' bill is unacceptable because it allows broad exemptions to a two-year cutoff on benefits if recipients have been unable to find a job. ``It's still lacking a comprehensive workfare component,'' said Stroupe.
A major difference in the parties' approaches is the Democrats' insistence that client-to-case-worker ratios should be no higher than 45:1 if the plan is to work. In many localities, social workers deal with 100 or more clients each.
``Now you're really talking money,'' said Sen. Mark L. Earley, R-Chesapeake, who led the floor opposition to the plan.
``Intensive case management is the key to breaking the cycle of welfare,'' countered Brickley, who praised the plan.
During floor debate, several Democrats argued that either plan may leave children without sufficient support when welfare benefits are cut off. ``That was an abomination of an idea,'' said Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan, D-Alexandria, recalling U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich's suggestion that some welfare children may wind up in orphanages. ``But it was intellectually honest,'' he said.
The Democrats' original bill called for a pilot program, phasing in 3,000 of the the state's 74,000 welfare recipients in each of the next five years. Republicans called for statewide implementation in five years, beginning in July 1996.
Sponsors of the new plan said it would be up to the Allen administration to decide precisely how welfare recipients would be phased into the revised four-year plan. Estimates on how many AFDC recipients might be enrolled in the first year of the plan ranged up to about 9,000. ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
KEYWORDS: GENERAL ASSEMBLY WELFARE SOCIAL SERVICES by CNB