WELFARE REFORM SENT TO FORDICE
By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON - Mississippi's welfare reform effort, intended to move people from government assistance to the work force, has passed both houses of the Mississippi Legislature and now awaits action by the governor.
Both the House and Senate passed slightly differing versions of welfare reform bills earlier this session. On Friday, both houses overwhelmingly passed a compromise version that now goes to the governor.
"So many folks thought this bill would get bogged down by partisan politics, but Mississippians expect more from their elected officials than that," Lt. Gov. Ronnie Musgrove said in praising the relatively quick action on the comprehensive bill. "They expect and deserve for us to come to Jackson and address the problems and needs facing our state."
The need to address welfare reform came about because of action on the federal level. Last summer Congress passed and President Clinton signed into law a bill giving the states more flexibility in running their own welfare programs.
The federal reform stressed moving people from welfare to work. Under federal law, people can receive only 60 months of benefits and must be in a job or educational program within two years. The states can exempt a large percentage of the recipients, though, from the two-year requirements.
Rep. Bobby Moody, D-Louisville, who handled the legislation as chairman of the Public Health and Welfare Committee, said the Legislature passed a bill "that is as compassionate as it could be and still meet the restrictions placed on us by the federal government."
The question now is whether Gov. Kirk Fordice will sign the bill into law or veto it.
Heath Hall, the governor's spokesman, said Friday afternoon, "Once he (Fordice) receives the bill, he will review it very carefully."
The Department of Human Services, whose executive director, Don Taylor, is appointed by Fordice, has worked closely with legislative leaders in developing Mississippi's welfare reform program.
"We have worked hard (with the legislative leadership) to reach a consensus," Taylor said, adding that he expects to meet with the governor next week to review the bill.
One point of contention early in the session was whether the Department of Human Services would be given enough leeway to make changes in the welfare reform program without first having to gain approval of the state Legislature. In his State of the State speech in January, Fordice stressed the importance of giving the Department of Human Services that leeway. It was one of the few issues in the speech shortened because Fordice was recovering from a Nov. 5 car wreck.
Despite that speech, the bill still contains language limiting DHS from making changes in the program without first gaining the consent of the Legislature. Taylor said he did not want to comment on the content of the bill before reviewing it.
Even if Fordice signs the bill, Moody said, the Legislature has not seen the last of welfare reform, adding that he expects to make changes in the legislation in upcoming years.
Moody said he plans to travel to Washington, D.C., after the session ends in April to talk to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., about the welfare reform program.
As welfare reform progresses, Moody said, it will take more money from the federal government for the states to achieve the goal of moving people from assistance to work.
During the first couple of years, it will be easy to move some of the 40,000 families currently receiving benefits to the work force, he said. But some of the people will need intensive training to be prepared to work, and incentives may be needed to convince employers to hire some of the recipients who have no work-related experience and have no job skills.
Most of the complaints about the bill center around the lack of funds to provide job training for welfare recipients.
Under the federal welfare reform program, Mississippi receives about $86 million in block grants - about $43 million more than it received last year. The state is matching that with about $29 million in block grants.
The money will be used to provide benefits, which primarily go to single mothers, and to provide day care and transportation for many of the recipients who will be placed in jobs or educational programs.