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Court throws out 2012 welfare law over how bill was enacted

July 18, 2018

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — A Pennsylvania law that ended state cash welfare benefits in 2012 and made other changes to human services programs was thrown out Wednesday over methods used to push it through the Legislature by Republican majorities.

The state Supreme Court unanimously struck down the multi-faceted legislation because its passage violated state constitutional requirements that bills be considered in each chamber for at least three session days before being voted out.

The bill ended a program that distributed about $150 million, typically in $205-a-month cash payments, to some 60,000 poor or disabled Pennsylvanians.

It also addressed nursing home assessments, a county block grant program, dependent children custodians, welfare work requirements and other matters regarding what was then called the Department of Public Welfare and is now Human Services.

The majority opinion said the bill’s earlier language was gutted and replaced with changes that altered the general subject of the bill, so it did not receive the required three days of consideration.

The point of the three-day requirement, wrote Justice Debra Todd, is to ensure “an open and deliberative legislative process in which all legislators are given a full opportunity to scrutinize a bill and offer changes which they may deem necessary, and to also make certain that, during this process, every member of the public has the opportunity to make his or her views known” to lawmakers before a final vote.

It was not immediately clear what the decision to throw out the law will mean in practical terms, but lawyers who brought the case predicted the general assistance program will be reinstated.

Michael Froehlich with Community Legal Services, which filed the litigation, called the decision a win for people “fleeing domestic violence or waiting for a decision in their Social Security cases. It’s also a victory for children living in deep poverty who rely on (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) cash assistance.”

The county commissioners’ association is studying the decision, particularly its impact on the block grant program.

In the House, all Democrats and five Republicans voted against it on final passage, and in the Senate only two Democrats crossed party lines to support it. Then-Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, immediately signed it into law.

House Democratic spokesman Bill Patton said Wednesday that gut-and-replace tactics have been less common since procedural reforms were enacted after the Legislature’s 2005 pay raise drew a heated public backlash.

Republican spokespeople in the House and Senate did not respond to messages seeking comment. Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s press secretary said the decision was being analyzed.

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