Finance Committee Approves Welfare Reform On Tommy@30 Day

MacIver News Service | May 23, 2017

By M.D. Kittle

[Madison, Wis…] On a day devoted to the legacy of Wisconsin’s longest-serving governor and its pioneer welfare reformer, the Legislature’s budget committee took up several welfare reform measures.

Before Tuesday afternoon’s Joint Finance Committee meeting, Wisconsin state government leaders past and present turned out for a Public Policy Symposium examined the innovator and master politician that is former Gov. Tommy Thompson.

The symposium is among several events scheduled this year in the Tommy@30 series, marking the 30th anniversary of the Republican’s first inauguration as governor – the first of many over a remarkable 14-year career as Wisconsin’s chief executive.

Among Thompson’s myriad accomplishments, the governor may be best remembered for his Wisconsin Works, or W-2, his signature welfare reform package of the mid-1990s.

“Few governors have had such an impact on the nation’s life,” James Klauser, chairman of the Tommy@30 committee, Secretary of the Department of Administration under Thompson and one of the former governor’s closest advisors, said in a press release. Klauser was among several former Thompson administration officials at Tuesday’s symposium.

“Tommy Thompson’s welfare reforms and job creation policies helped millions enjoy the dignity of work and independence,” Klauser added.

Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican-controlled Legislature have sought to follow in Thompson’s welfare reform footsteps.

Walker, who has been a national leader in government reform over his term and a half in office, earlier this year rolled out a package of welfare reforms billed as “Wisconsin Works for Everyone.” Walker has sold the proposals as the next generation of Wisconsin Works.

Walker in January toured the state with Thompson. He pledged to make Wisconsin a national leader again in welfare reform, as Thompson had done in the 1990s.

Joint Finance Committee Republicans on Tuesday moved toward the fulfillment of that promise, getting behind Walker’s proposal that would expand drug screening and testing for participants in the state’s welfare-to-work program.

Republican lawmakers in 2015 passed a similar measure. Walker’s plan expands the earlier reform measure, requiring welfare recipients who fail a drug test to seek treatment in order to receive benefits. The JFC motion passed 12-4, with the committee’s four Democrats voting against.

On the same party-line vote, the JFC passed another Walker initiative that would trim W-2 benefits for families of children who are habitually truant and who do not cooperate with case management services to improve attendance. Currently, state law cuts benefits for families of children not enrolled in school.

Walker’s plan to eliminate the so-called “benefits cliff” in the Wisconsin Shares child care subsidy program received unanimous approval from the committee, although a provision that would restrict would-be welfare recipients with $25,000 or more in liquid assets from receiving benefits seemed to thoroughly confuse Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee.

“If you are a low-income individual, we want to help you, but you can’t have a lot of cash sitting there,” said Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, attempting to explain the liquid cash limits.

Current law discontinues child care subsidies for families with incomes at 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level. Joint Finance Committee Chairwoman Sen. Alberta Darling, (R-River HIlls) has said the cliff is a disincentive to breaking the welfare chains. Walker’s plan provides a sliding scale, allowing child care program participants to receive $1 for every $3 earned in excess of the eligibility limit. Benefits end once income hits 85 percent of the state’s median income. The cost is projected at $4 million, over two years, funded through federal cash.

The committee also unanimously pushed aside Walker’s proposed two-year, $1 million ad campaign encouraging the critical role fathers play in their children’s lives. The ad campaign would highlight what has been described as the “success sequence,” the idea that people who graduate from high school, work a full-time job and have children while married after the age of 21 are much more successful than those who don’t follow this formula.

The importance of two-parent homes is an idea that Eloise Anderson has long advocated. Wisconsin’s Secretary of Children and Families who was at the forefront of Tommy Thompson-era welfare reform, recalled the battles surrounding W-2 at the Tommy@30 symposium. She said Democrats fought against the assertion that “we wouldn’t have had so many poor families if we had intact families.”

“There was never such a fight as the fight against fathers being in the home,” Anderson said.

At a separate event, Republicans and university officials announced the proposed Tommy G. Thompson Center on Public Leadership to be located on the UW-Madison campus. JFC Republicans declined to comment on the cost. Liberals instantly blasted the proposal, fearing the nonpartisan center would be a conservative think tank. UW-Madison is arguably one of the more liberal universities in the country with no shortage of left-leaning thought centers, programs and initiatives.