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Welfare-to-Work Focus of Vt. Senate Budget Debate

Montpelier — The Vermont Senate yesterday passed a nearly $1.4 billion general fund budget for fiscal 2014 that places time limits on the state’s Reach Up welfare-to-work program for the first time.

Both the House and Shumlin administration had supported a five-year limit, with exceptions for hardship cases, on households receiving cash benefits under the program.

While differing on the details, the agreement in principle between the two chambers and the Democratic governor typified what appears to be a relatively smooth budget process: The House’s and Senate’s bottom lines are about $2 million apart.

The budgets are $1.362 billion for the Senate and $1.364 billion for the House.

The Senate’s decision on the Reach Up time limits did not come without drawing impassioned debate, with critics pointing to a provision calling for a new study of the program and saying that should happen before changes are made.

“I understand there is a study in the big bill that will provide information for us, but in the meantime, we are limiting people who are struggling,” said Sen. Ginny Lyons, D-Chittenden.

The five-year limit comes with caveats. It does not apply to parents who are unable to work, parents with babies in their first year in the household — that was shortened from two years, and recipients “affected by domestic violence.” And parents who are working after the time limit may still get partial benefits to supplement wages.

Under questioning from Sen. Anthony Pollina, who represents Washington County under the Progressive, Democratic and Working Family party banners, the chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia, said the changes would save the state an estimated $800,000 a year.

But she said the budgetary savings was not the main point. Rather, she said the program needed to change to remove chronic recipients from its roles. She cited one caseworker’s report of a recipient saying that Reach Up benefits — about $640 a month for the average household — provided an incentive not to work.

The debate grew heated when Democratic Sen. Richard Sears rose to tell of a law enforcement drug sweep in his home community of Bennington, where 64 people were arrested in January. Of them, 52 were receiving some kind of state benefits, he said; 12 were in the Reach Up program.

That drew a rebuke from Lyons, who said she was “very disturbed by some of the comments that I think were trying to denigrate folks who participate in Reach Up,” she said.

Meanwhile, the Vermont State Employees Association held a news conference yesterday to address Reach Up provisions in both chamber’s budgets. The group protested the House’s elimination of six jobs this year and 14 by the end of next year in the Department of Labor that were for counselors helping Reach Up recipients get into the workforce. Speakers said the Senate version would preserve the jobs.

Dave Yacovone, commissioner of the Department for Children and Families, said he and his boss, Gov. Peter Shumlin, support shifting money that currently goes to the Department of Labor to pay for alcohol and substance abuse counseling for Reach Up recipients. He said substance abuse was a barrier for some long-time recipients entering the workforce.