Thursday, April 26, 2012

EBT card reforms pass the House, some Democrats apoplectic

For two years in a row, Wednesday night's eleventh hour during "budget week" produced a splitting headache for Massachusetts House Democrats.

Last year, the House voted to give municipalities control of their health insurance plans' co-pays and deductibles without the need to collectively bargain any changes. Unions were there in strength all week long during the budget negotiations and had the gallery packed at 11:30 pm. A threatening email from the AFL-CIO had been sent earlier in the week making it clear that going against the unions would be detrimental to politicians' careers. See the email and my response to it here.

In a split vote among Democrats, a majority was established in favor of the insurance reforms before the Republican caucus of 32 logged its votes, all supportive of the measure. The choice for Democrats was the possibility of losing their union support (meaning that there could be primary challengers in 2012 offered up by the unions) or losing favor with the Speaker of the House and potentially derailing their Statehouse ambitions.

This year, the Wednesday Night Fights were about electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards and the unending news stories about the latest Fraud of the Week. These cards have replaced welfare payments by check as well as food stamps. The accounts are loaded with the appropriate amount of money each month, depending on the beneficiary's situation, which is to be used for the necessities of life.

To set the stage for the debate, you should know that Shaunna O'Connell, freshman Republican representative from Taunton (the one who beat James Fagan after his unfortunate tirade on the House floor promising to rip apart child rape victims at trial if Jessica's Law was passed), sponsored a bill last year to create a commission to study the problem of EBT card fraud and abuse. The commission completed its work last month, essentially declaring that system is pretty good as is. The loophole in how these cards work is that they can be used at ATMs, thereby circumventing any restriction of use placed upon them. Undaunted, O'Connell filed a budget amendment to force reasonable restrictions onto EBT card use, including closing the ATM loophole.

The other key component to this debate is a dynamic that operates at the Statehouse on every issue, as I alluded to earlier. That is, there is potential retribution for any Democrat who votes counter to the Speaker. There are times when a contrarian vote is allowed, such as when a representative is vulnerable in his/her election and needs to vote in line with the district's constituents, but advanced approval of these votes is encouraged.

On a side note, I always thought that representatives were supposed to represent their constituents. I understand that issues of conviction, such a one's position on the death penalty, could be an exception to this rule, but voting against having the state collect its outstanding debts rather than writing them off seems nonsensical to me. Yes, this was voted down yesterday because the Speaker was a nay vote. Trust me, if the Speaker's light had been green (a yea vote), the measure would have passed. Many opinions seem to be informed solely by the color of a light on the tote board.

The debate on EBT card reform started at about 11:15 pm, coincident with the distribution of a "further amendment" that replaced O'Connell's amendment in its entirety. We all have been critical of the U.S. Congress releasing bills without sufficient time for the representatives to read them prior to a vote. In this case, the further amendment was literally being distributed while people were at the podium debating its merits. A court officer was positioned to prevent legislators from walking in front of the representative speaking at the podium.

Two of the speakers, both Democrats against the further amendment, actually made a point of the fact that this legislation was sprung on the members at the eleventh hour (quite literally) and that it references a ten-page list in eight-point font of licensed professional occupations in the Massachusetts General Laws. How could anyone in this chamber read all of that?

The answer, of course, is that given zero time to do so, not even Evelyn Wood would have a shot at accomplishing this feat. It is interesting for me to watch Democrats pointing out obvious breaches of common sense, only to be rebuked by their own leadership.

One freshman Democratic representative from Boston spoke in favor of the further amendment, pointing out that paying for drugs, alcohol and pornography with EBT cards only perpetuates behavior that is destructive to the family unit. I like that guy.

A veteran Democrat railed at the further amendment saying that it was not at all about getting at the fraud and abuse in our welfare system, but rather it was a thinly veiled attack on the underclass, saying that "this amendment is not pro-taxpayer. This amendment is anti-poor person."

When the question was called, there were 122 votes for the further amendment and 33 against. The issue is far from being resolved, however. The Senate is likely to take out some of the more onerous parts of the bill, like banning the purchase of cosmetics with EBT cards, if they decide to include EBT reform in their version of the fiscal year 2013 budget at all. With respect to the governor, no doubt he will veto this outside section if it is close in form to what was passed last night.

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