On Sunday evening, negotiators from the State Senate and House of Representatives got to “yes” on a pair of spending bills (links here and here), and yesterday, the full Legislature approved them and sent them to the Governor.
If you’ve been following our Legislature this year, you have probably noticed how often the issue of welfare fraud comes up. The Republicans, of course, are always eager to raise suspicions about public benefits programs. And the Democratic leadership has concluded that making promises to “root out” welfare fraud (and thereby implying that fraud is rampant when it is not) deflects the discussion away from the tax increases they voted for but are not eager to defend. So, no surprise that both of the bills passed yesterday include new restrictions (the much preferred term is “crackdowns”) in the state’s safety net programs.
One of the new restrictions requires many recipients of food stamps (SNAP) or cash assistance to come to a welfare office to have their photograph taken. The photograph will appear on a new EBT card that the state will issue. If Massachusetts adopts this policy (and only a veto by the Governor stands in its way), it will be the only state in the nation to require photo ID’s on EBT cards. Other states have decided against photo ID’s, concluding that they would add millions of dollars in administrative costs and would do little to deter fraud (but would do a great deal to deter the efficient distribution of benefits to needy and eligible people). New York has opted against photo ID’s, for example. Interestingly, so has Massachusetts: former Governor Mitt Romney, “Mr. Cost-Benefit” himself, discontinued the photo ID policy when it failed his test.
So to watch the Legislature insist on going forward with the photo ID plan was to watch the triumph of dogma over reason. Senators Sonia Chang-Diaz and Jamie Eldridge, in the roles of responsible bean-counters-against-government-waste, offered the very rational proposal that the photo ID requirement should not take effect until the Auditor had determined that it would save more money than it would cost. In rebuttal, Ways and Means Chairman Stephen Brewer offered no evidence that it would save more money than it would cost. Instead he simply circled back to the original premise: “what I hear is fix our welfare system.” Sadly, that argument carried the day.
And even with these two latest bills, we may not have heard the last on the subject of welfare. Last month, the Senate passed another welfare bill. (This one at least acknowledges that the policy goal ought to be the elimination of poverty, not simply the elimination of fraud — credit where credit due.) The House of Representatives has so far concerned itself solely with the issue of fraud, conjuring monsters of deceit and then drafting legislation to slay them, and it intends to respond to the Senate bill later this year with its own proposal.
Based on what we have seen so far, the best course is never getting to “yes” on this one.
1. Want to register your disapproval of the Photo ID proposal with the Governor, who could veto it? Call 617-725-4005 and urge him to veto sections 4, 75, 76 and 77 of House Bill 3839, which is now on his desk. Send a message to the Legislature that they have more important work to do.
2. Many members of the Senate deserve thanks for their efforts to improve the welfare bill during the Senate’s June 20 debate. In alphabetical order, my nominations are: Michael Barrett, Sonia Chang-Diaz, Katherine Clark, Cynthia Creem, Sal Di Domenico, Kenneth Donnelly, Eileen Donohue, Benjamin Downing, Jamie Eldridge, Barry Finegold, Linda Dorcena Forry, Pat Jehlen, Mark Montigny, Marc Pacheco, Karen Spilka, Dan Wolf. (I’d appreciate hearing about any omissions.)