By SCOTT BAUER
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — 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 on public housing applicants and lays down a photo-identification requirement for food-stamp recipients.
Democrats blasted the move, and the timing of the announcement, saying Walker was trying to gin up conservative voters and draw attention away from an upset Democratic victory in a special state Senate election on 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. Many, including the photo ID requirement for food-stamp recipients, couldn’t move forward without federal approval.
Walker defended the proposal as a way to get more people off public assistance and into the workforce at a time when Wisconsin’s unemployment rate is just 3 percent, a figure that ties 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 on 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 scanty 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:
- Take the current food-stamp work requirement that now applies only to able-bodied childless adults and, starting in October 2019, make it also apply to parents with school-aged children between the ages of 6 and 18. Walker also wants to increase, from 20 to 30 hours a week, the minimum-work or job-training hours for both adults and parents.
The current requirement has led to 23,100 able-bodied food stamp participants finding work and 81,000 losing their benefits.
- Require people seeking to benefit from public housing to first undergo drug screening, testing and treatment. Walker has already asked the Trump administration for approval to drug test Medicaid and food-stamp recipients.
- Require photo IDs to receive food stamps, a change that couldn’t be made without federal approval but that has been done in other states. Critics say the proposal would be cumbersome to administer and would not help anyone get a job, whereas supporters say it would help fight 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 refuse to cooperate with a paternity test for a child, any child support order or make payments a child has a right to receive.