- The Washington Times - Friday, February 27, 2009

The most unreported story in Virginia politics this year is Gov. Tim Kaine and the Virginia General Assembly, in a demonstration of bipartisanship at its worst, taking a step toward dismantling welfare reforms. The reforms were enacted more than a decade ago under the leadership of Republican Gov. George Allen, when Virginia instituted time limits for welfare assistance and required able-bodied welfare recipients to work. As a result, since 1995 the number of persons on welfare dropped by about 85 percent. Now these achievements are in danger. The House and Senate have passed and Kaine will soon sign into law a welfare bill that takes a huge step towards dismantling the Allen reforms and making welfare an attractive option once again for Virginia’s underclass. Last month, the House of Delegates, where Republicans command a majority, voted 96-0 for HB 1714, a bill that dramatically transforms “diversionary” assistance from a temporary program helping welfare recipients in emergencies into something resembling an entitlement program.

The bill, introduced by Delegate Roslyn Tyler, a liberal freshman Democrat from Jarratt, would make it easier for persons to receive additional welfare payments from the government under Temporary Aid for Needy Families (TANF is the basic welfare program that replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children). Earlier this month, the Virginia Senate voted 22-17, largely along party lines, in favor of its own version of the welfare expansion, SB 1045, introduced by Sen. Yvonne Miller, Norfolk Democrat, one of that chamber’s most liberal members, and the House voted to approve the Senate bill. Mr. Kaine, a supporter of the legislation, is expected to sign it into law in coming days.

Under current law, Virginia TANF recipients may receive up to $1,400 in “diversionary” cash assistance (approximately four months worth of welfare benefits) every five years. But, under the legislation Kaine is about to sign into law, they will be able to receive these additional benefits every year. That sounds like an expansion of welfare that could cost taxpayers money and destroy work incentive - but not according to the spin doctors in the Kaine administration: The governor’s Department of Planning and Budget issued a fiscal impact statement claiming that expanding diversionary assistance would actually save more than $1.5 million over five years. Many conservatives, particularly in the House of Delegates, were lulled by the assurance. But Sen. Mark Obenshain, Harrisonburg Republican, makes a very persuasive case that his colleagues were bamboozled and have just enacted a bureaucratic monstrosity that will lure an increasing number of Virginians onto the public dole and cost taxpayers more money.

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Obenshain supports the idea of providing diversionary assistance. He says that when limited to once every five years, as is the case under current Virginia law, it can help poor people weather personal crises and get back on their feet. But the dramatic expansion that Kaine is about to sign transforms the program into a means of creating more dependency. The alleged savings, he told The Times yesterday, will be wiped out if the percentage of recipients that can be diverted from TANF a second time is different from projections; the new legislation increases the number of applicants; the program breeds a greater dependency that encourages a higher rate of return to TANF; or the average grant amount increases. “Similarly, if each city or county issues even five new grants per year, the commonwealth would lose money on this proposal,” he warned.

Virginia, in short, is about to take a large step backward - in the direction of greater dependency. And it will provide some important lessons about the problems that result when conservatives and Republicans sign on to irresponsible legislation in the name of bipartisanship.

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