HARRISBURG -- The state Senate president plans to introduce legislation aimed at what he says is an outcry over welfare abuse.
Among the proposals: increased penalties for fraud such as making the receipt of fraudulent benefits worth more than $1,000 a third-degree felony, imposing higher fees for lost food stamp cards, making Lottery jackpot winners promptly report their winnings and tightening the state's existing asset test to make it more restrictive in terms of what vehicles an aid recipient can have, according to a legislative memo seeking co-sponsors.
"I just think that I hear -- and I see myself on many occasions -- instances where I know people are on some of these benefits. And I see their lifestyle and I question their ability to be on that," said Sen. Joe Scarnati, a Republican from rural Jefferson County. "And I think working Pennsylvanians question that and the system."
Jefferson County has a poverty rate of 14.5 percent, compared with a statewide rate of 13.7 percent, according to 2011 statistics.
Several benefit experts and advocacy groups for the poor said they fear the proposals would be harmful, adding additional red tape to an already paperwork-intensive process at an understaffed agency.
"This continues a trend that we've seen where lawmakers take rare events and use them to make sweeping policy changes that create additional burdens for persons in need who are already struggling to make ends meet," said LaDonna Pavetti, an expert on welfare programs at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "These policies reinforce negative stereotypes about poor people which have no basis in fact."
In Pennsylvania, about 1.8 million people receive the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly referred to as food stamps, about 2.2 million people use Medicaid and about 195,000 people receive cash welfare benefits, according to the most recent state statistics.
In the last several years, a number of changes have been instituted by the Legislature in the name of rooting out fraud and keeping assistance only for the truly needy, such as drug testing for people with previous felony drug convictions, disallowing people from applying for benefits in a county outside of where they live and additional income eligibility verifications.
In 2012, the Corbett administration instituted a controversial asset test for food stamp applicants that disqualifies applicants under age 60 who have more than $5,500 in assets and those who are disabled or over age 60 with more than $9,000 in assets.
One household vehicle is exempt from this calculation; Mr. Scarnati's proposal would cap the value of that exempted vehicle at $35,000.
But the asset test is already under fire for slowing down the department's application processing time, and Department of Public Welfare officials have said it could be eliminated.
"The problem [with Mr. Scarnati's legislation] is everybody has to prove their vehicle is not worth that amount," said Richard Weishaupt, senior attorney at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, which provides legal aid for benefit applicants. "Even if you are driving a 1988 Plymouth, you have to prove it is not worth $35,000. It creates a lot of red tape for very little pay off."
Mr. Weishaupt also said he found the idea of charging $100 for a lost food stamp card "troubling."
The senator's proposal would impose a $5 fee the first time a card is lost, and $100 for any additional card lost within the same calendar year.
"These fees will deter recipients from exchanging or selling their [electronic benefit transfer] cards ... while protecting those who have legitimately lost or misplaced their Access cards," states his legislative memo.
Currently, the first replacement card is free and additional replacement cards are $2.50.
"I just have no idea how someone who gets their wallet stolen would come up with $100 to replace their EBT card," Mr. Weishaupt said.
In terms of reporting Lottery winnings, the DPW could not provide any statistics on the number of jackpot Lottery winners who are aid recipients. DPW regulations already require clients to report changes in income that could impact their eligibility for a given program, said Kait Gillis, a DPW spokeswoman.
Additionally, the DPW has a monthly data exchange in place with the Department of Revenue to cross reference information on Lottery winnings greater than $500 each month against its clients.
A study by the Michigan Department of Human Services in 2012 found in that state, about 14 percent of all lottery winners -- 3,544 people -- were receiving some type of public assistance or were residing in a household with someone who was. Their winnings did not necessarily disqualify them from receiving the assistance in every case, depending on the program.
Statistics were not available Friday from Pennsylvania's Office of Inspector General about the number of annual prosecutions for welfare or food stamp fraud statewide. Those found guilty of welfare fraud could face up to seven years in prison, fines up to $15,000, mandatory restitution, and program disqualification, according to information on the OIG's website. Ms. Gillis said currently such fraud isn't considered a felony unless the amount of fraudulent benefits is $3,000 or greater. Mr. Scarnati proposes changing that threshold to $1,000.
Nationally, the rate of food stamp fraud is low, accounting for about one cent of every dollar in the program, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Neither state Sen. Pat Vance, R-Cumberland, who chairs the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee, nor Senate Minority Leader, Democrat Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, could be reached Friday.
There is no companion bill in the House, though the House passed a bill last session aimed at toughening welfare fraud penalties.