By Miranda Davis
February 16, 2016
Consequences of a House bill drafted to expand restrictions on allocation of welfare assistance Tuesday dominated debate in a House committee working to advance reforms on eligibility for public aid in Kansas.
The bill creates a mandate for recipients to self-report potential fraud, sets a 20-hour-per-week work requirement to qualify for food stamps and mandates the Kansas Lottery compile a monthly list of people winning more than $10,000.
The lottery roster is to be used by the Kansas Department for Children and Families to determine whether recipients of TANF, or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, may have pushed their annual income to a level making them no longer eligible for assistance.
Rep. John Whitmer, a Wichita Republican and a member of the House Health and Human Service Committee, said House Bill 2600 represented “common-sense legislation.”
However, Reps. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, and John Wilson, D-Lawrence, shared concerns the reforms could create unnecessary barriers for low-income Kansans in need of public aid. The legislation may inflict damage on welfare applicants who didn’t commit fraud with malicious intent, the lawmakers said.
“Does it give you any sense … that you’re forcing people at the risk of losing their benefits to give evidence that might be against them?” Ward asked during the committee hearing.
Complexity of the welfare system and details of penalties for not cooperating may serve to persuade welfare program participants to remain silent when questioned, said Rep. Dick Jones, R-Topeka.
“The question is, what do you do to protect those people, who are confused and worried about saying the wrong thing that might get their husband or their wife thrown in jail?” Jones said.
Sandra Kimmons, director of economic and employment services for DCF, said fraud investigations weren’t random and occurred after the agency received a tip alleging fraud. The theme of reforms embraced by Gov. Sam Brownback is to move Kansans off welfare, she said.
“It is our ultimate goal to help individuals move from poverty to prosperity through self-reliance,” Kimmons said.
DCF investigations are conducted to keep people from abusing a welfare system paid for by taxpayers, said Ken Thompson, director of fraud investigations for the agency.
“If you want the assistance, play by the rules,” Thompson said.
Rabbi Moti Rieber, executive director of Kansas Interfaith Action, referred to the legislation as “mean-spirited.”
“This particular bill seems like a solution in search of a problem,” Rieber said.
Amanda Gress, a lobbyist for Kansas Action for Children, said the bill would put in place barriers for children who could benefit from the state’s safety net.
Wilson, the Lawrence Democrat, said Kansas children would be inadvertently punished if their parents engaged in fraud.
“What’s getting lost in all of this are the children, whose lives depend on these benefits,” Wilson said. “I don’t think they can control whether their parents play by the rules.”