It’s budget week for our House of Representatives. The House Ways and Means Committee released its budget recommendation for the upcoming fiscal year on April 10, and since then Committee staffers have been busy analyzing the 888 amendments that House members filed and sorting them into subject matter groups. Here’s what we can expect.
In keeping with the practice in place for a decade or so, much of the budget debate will happen outside of public view, in a room next to the House chamber. Announcements will be made that the amendments on a particular subject are to be considered. Representatives interested in those amendments will then go to the side room to argue their case to House leadership. There will be some winners and some losers, but the end result, known as a “consolidated amendment,” is always agreed to, often unanimously.
This process may strike you as shockingly devoid of transparency. Its defenders point out that all members are free to decline the consolidated amendment process and to debate their amendments on the House floor instead. Some members regularly accept that challenge — the members of the minority party, along with a conservative Democrat or two. We can expect that they will again demand debate on at least two issues, closely related to each other politically.
The subject of the first debate will be cutting taxes. Minority Leader Brad Jones, for example, has filed an amendment to cut both the sales and income taxes to five percent over five years. (If you’re wondering, House Democrats have not filed any budget amendments proposing large-scale tax increases.) The GOP’s tax cut amendments stand no real chance of being passed — their purpose is to try to force the Democrats to vote against a tax cut, a record that could then be used against them in the next election. The Democrats may counter that amendment with a further amendment in order to render the issue politically innocuous: to wit, last year, when the GOP proposed a sales tax cut, the Democrats changed the amendment to provide that the sales tax would be cut when legislation was passed to cut it — and voila, who could be against that?
The subject of the second debate will be the fraudulent receipt of public benefits by the recipients of those benefits. Promoting the notion that this is the single most pressing issue facing the state is a joint profile-raising venture among the Republican Party and conservative media, and it has been used — with a fair amount of success — in each of the past three budget debates and well before that. The particulars of this second debate have varied over recent years. Sometimes the villains are immigrants, as in this Herald cover from House budget debate week in 2010:
Last year the focus was on EBT cards. This year again, the public benefits fraud alarm has been sounded, in eighteen separate amendments* calling for more restrictions and more punishments, the tacit message of which reinforces the first subject the GOP is eager to debate — if it weren’t for these moochers robbing us, we’d have our money back in the form of tax cuts.
Mark Twain once said that a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting its shoes on. And so it is here, with the claim that public benefits fraud by recipients is the biggest problem we face. State Senator Dan Wolf and some others have helpfully begun to expose this notion as a myth. Here are some reasons why they’re right.
For starters, the idea of investigating potential fraud by recipients of public benefits programs is hardly a new one — it’s nearly as old as the programs themselves. Today, it is the mission of the Bureau of Special Investigations, which was established in the early days of Weld administration. The Office of the State Auditor, where the Bureau is located, reports that in a recent fiscal year, the Bureau received more than 2000 complaints of suspected fraud and identified $4.1 million in fraudulent claims.
Second, the premise that welfare fraud is becoming more rampant because so many more people are receiving welfare is just wrong. Let’s look at the caseload numbers. Shortly before the Great Recession began, the welfare caseload stood at 45,900. The unemployment rate at the time was 4.1 percent . Three years later, in December 2010, when the employment rate had nearly doubled to 8 percent, and one might have expected the welfare caseload to have done the same, it stood at 52,463, an increase of only 14 percent. The truth is that today, fewer than half the families living in poverty in Massachusetts receive any form of cash assistance; fifteen years ago, nearly all of them did. We readily suspect that poor people are up to no good, but we’re oblivious to their poverty.
Finally, the argument that eliminating welfare fraud would significantly affect the state’s bottom line collapses when you consider that the program for cash assistance to families living in poverty — the primary target of the anti-fraud movement — accounts for less than one percent of the entire state budget.
Now, let’s consider — and embrace — the argument that public benefits fraud should be eliminated wherever it occurs. In that case, the state’s biggest welfare cheat is a pharmaceutical company named GlaxoSmithKline, which paid $35 million to the state’s Medicaid program to settle charges of illegally marketing and pricing drugs that it manufactures. That’s almost nine times the amount of money that the Bureau of Special Investigations identifies annually in recipient fraud (and the $35 million is only what GlaxoSmithKline admitted to). Did outraged legislators demand investigations of other drug companies and call for Glaxo to be excluded from state Medicaid contracts as punishment? Not exactly — in fact, quite the opposite: the House responded by loosening restrictions that had been imposed to control Big Pharma’s aggressive marketing of drugs. Or to take another example, remember when one guy stole $4 million from the film tax credit program and there was a swift and stern response from legislators calling for the Department of Revenue to exercise much stricter oversight? Of course you don’t, because, although the theft occurred, the swift and stern response did not.
But we progressives need to get ready for another battle in the welfare fraud wars. The Boston Herald is already crowing that it has brought House Speaker Robert DeLeo to heel again this year. DeLeo is demanding photo ID’s on electronic benefits cards, a very expensive venture of dubious value in fraud prevention, and he wants another layer of bureaucracy on fraud patrol. If he thinks that those moves will end the debate, he doesn’t know the minority party very well. Leader Brad Jones has predictably responded to DeLeo’s initiatives by saying, “it’s a great first step, but it’s not addressing all that needs to be addressed.”
So it looks like we’re getting set up for another House budget debate where the only thing that’s debated in public is the deliciously tormenting idea that poor people are getting away with something at the expense of the rest of us.
What can we progressives do? We can support the good budget amendments that will fight poverty instead of fighting the poor. We can provide more child care for working families. We can restore dental benefits to adults who receive subsidized health care; we can provide jobs for unemployed kids; we can help to bring vacant public housing units back online to ease the problem of homelessness, and we can provide shelter for homeless children without first requiring that they sleep in unsafe places.
And the biggest thing we can do is to make sure our Representatives know that we’re rejecting the austerity war against the poor. We’re rejecting tax cuts and we’re rejecting the lie that punishing the poor for their poverty will solve our problems. This year, maybe, the truth has its running shoes on.
* The amendments, by number: 96, 322, 385, 387, 683, 686, 697, 753, 790, 814, 820, 828, 838, 840, 848, 871, 878, 880.