Gov. Walker proposes welfare overhaul package: ‘We need everyone in the game’

Gov. Scott Walker

MADISON — Gov. Scott Walker on Thursday called on the Wisconsin Legislature to pass a sweeping welfare overhaul package that includes requiring parents on food stamps to meet a work requirement, imposes new drug testing for public housing applicants and creates a photo identification for food stamp recipients.

Democrats blasted the move, and the timing of the announcement, saying Walker was trying to excite his conservative base and distract from an upset Democratic victory in a special state Senate election Tuesday. Walker labeled that GOP loss a “wake up call” for Republicans.

Walker called on the Legislature to approve the bills as part of a special session to run concurrently with the regular one expected to wrap up in March. Several of the ideas have been around for years and many, including the photo ID requirement for food stamp recipients, would require federal approval.

Walker defended the package as a way to get more people off of public assistance and into the workforce at a time when Wisconsin’s unemployment rate is just 3 percent, tied for the lowest on record.

“With more people working in Wisconsin than ever before, we can’t afford to have anyone on the sidelines,” Walker said in announcing the package of proposals. “We need everyone in the game.”

Walker is up for re-election in November and Democrats are riding high after an incumbent Republican state representative lost by 11 points in a special election for state Senate Tuesday in a district President Donald Trump won by 17 points.

“It’s sad and desperate that he thinks the best way to win re-election is to go after struggling families who are trying to get ahead,” said Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling. “This is not the issue impacting families across Wisconsin and this is not the issue families want fixed.”

Assembly Democratic Minority Leader Gordon Hintz accused Walker of “stoking fears, creating division, and pandering to his base.”

Those who work directly with people on state Medicaid programs also criticized the proposals.

Most people agree that certain welfare reforms are needed, said Bobby Peterson, executive director of ABC for Health, a nonprofit law firm in Madison that helps people get health care.

“But reform should be a helping hand up for low income people and not a kick backwards,” Peterson said. “Unfortunately, I see more of the latter in these proposals.”

The additional requirements would hurt low-income parents who face barriers to work, such as a lack of affordable child care and limited transportation options, said Ken Taylor, executive director at Kids Forward, a group that analyzes policies affecting children and families in Wisconsin.

“If state policymakers are genuinely interested in expanding the workforce, they should develop a bipartisan agenda that helps people achieve their potential by removing the barriers that impede work,” Taylor said.

Walker’s proposals, sponsored by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Sen. Chris Kapenga, would:

— Expand the current food stamp work requirement that only covers able-bodied childless adults to include parents with school-aged children between the ages of 6 and 18 starting in October 2019. Walker also wants to increase the minimum work or job training hours for both adults and parents from 20 to 30 hours a week.

The current requirement has led to 24,420 able-bodied food stamp participants finding work and 85,972 losing their benefits through November.

— Require drug screening, testing and treatment to be eligible for public housing. Walker has already asked the Trump administration for approval to drug test Medicaid and food stamp recipients.

— Require photo IDs to participate in the food stamp program, a change that would require federal approval but that has been done in other states. Critics say that will be cumbersome to administer and not help anyone get a job, while supporters say it will cut down on fraud.

— Forbid anyone living in a home worth double the median value home, about $321,000, or owning vehicles worth more than $20,000 from receiving food stamps and other Medicaid benefits.

— Prohibit participation in Medicaid for any able-bodied adults who refused to cooperate with paternity determination of a child, establishing or enforcing any child support order or obtaining other payments a child has a right to receive.