Because a governor has considerable power to shape the nature of a state and determine how it treats its citizens, there’s reason to think a small program serving this state’s most vulnerable can survive efforts to kill it.
The reason is this: Gov. Tom Wolf is known for decency as a human being and a long commitment to public service.
Even those who disagree with the Democratic incumbent over taxes, spending, or government’s role in society will acknowledge his demonstrated devotion to a greater good than politics.
It started with his Peace Corps service in India; extended to volunteerism in his York County community; and is repeatedly displayed in office (where he serves without compensation) on issues of education, addiction, health care, LGBTQ rights, and more.
That devotion is about to be tested.
The Republican-controlled legislature wants to end the small, humane General Assistance program, which dates back 50-plus years under legislative majorities and governors of both parties.
I’ve written about it before. I do so again because there’s no reason to abolish it other than to satisfy GOP ideology, playing off cruel stereotypes of welfare grifters with no real need of public aid.
The ideology is merciless. The effort to end the program is shameful.
It’s a program serving mostly disabled people with no income who cannot work, displaced victims of domestic violence, and those in rehab for addiction.
It is largely a bridge for adults who don’t qualify for other aid beyond, in some cases, food stamps and Medicare, who are awaiting approval of Social Security disability income benefits.
It provides $200 monthly cash grants to help with housing costs, household bills, transportation to medical appointments, and personal necessities such as toiletries and laundry detergent.
In other words, survival basics for those living in a small category of need. And when federal benefits are approved, the state is reimbursed for grants paid out.
Currently, about 11,000 people are enrolled statewide, about 5,600 in Philadelphia. And while Wolf originally sought $50 million for the program in his $34 billion budget, the new ask, based on updated enrollment, is $24.5 million — a sliver of state resources.
Suggesting, as Republicans do, that the program should end because of other spending priorities heartlessly ignores a disabled community facing daily hardships.
In favor of what? More corporate tax breaks? Movie tax credits? Horse racing subsidies? Or the legislature’s annual cost — this year, $340 million?
Republicans killed this program before, back in 2012. But it was reinstated by the state Supreme Court last year after lengthy litigation.
Now, Republicans are poised to kill it again. Legislation to do so (House Bill 33) is positioned to pass the GOP-run House at any time. If the bill gets bogged down or fails to pass the GOP-run Senate, Republican leaders intend to use annual budget negotiations, expected to wind up next week, to zero-fund the program.
So, its future depends on Wolf. And it seems uncertain.
Knowing Republicans wanted to end grants, Wolf initially offered a compromise: Put the money into new low-income housing.
Turns out nobody liked the idea, especially grant advocates, who said it would simply take benefits from one group of poor to give to another group of poor.
The governor has not committed to a veto of anything ending General Assistance. On Friday he said he and budget negotiators are “still talking.”
Meanwhile, 24 Philly Democratic lawmakers signed a letter to Wolf encouraging him to do “everything in your power” to preserve cash assistance.
The city’s House delegation chairman, Rep. Jason Dawkins, says, “We are absolutely committed here, and we are not backing down. … I think the governor should take it very seriously.”
On Monday, an additional 31 Democrats representing southeastern counties signed a letter with the same message.
Wolf says the state will start the new fiscal year July 1 — after meeting additional spending obligations this fiscal year — with a surplus of roughly $200 million, which he and Republicans want to put into the state’s Rainy Day Fund.