Mich. lawmakers far apart on cutting caseworkers

Michigan lawmakers far apart on cutting caseworkers in state human services agency

Associated Press

LANSING, Mich. (AP) -- Republican lawmakers on Tuesday approved vastly different plans to fund public assistance for the poor and protect children from abuse and neglect, with a House panel voting to cut more than 1,000 state jobs, or nearly 9 percent, from the Michigan agency that handles welfare, food stamps and foster care.

A Senate subcommittee later approved a Department of Human Services budget with 270 fewer funded positions than in the current fiscal year. That version is closer to Gov. Rick Snyder's proposal — which would trim about 30 jobs — and the Senate's job reductions in the child protective services division would not happen if the state has trouble meeting caseload-to-staff ratios required under a court-ordered mandate.

Differences must be resolved after the spending plans clear the full House and Senate and before lawmakers' June deadline to pass the next state budget.

"This is a pretty hard body blow when we've made significant inroads here over the last couple years across all programs and platforms of this agency," DHS spokesman Dave Akerly said of the House budget. "We don't feel that it's in any way, shape or form a realistic budget."

Three juvenile justice facilities also would close and the youth offenders sent to private facilities under the House plan, which is in stark contrast to what the Republican governor proposed. The proposal drew criticism from Democrats who said caseloads would rise 7 percent for already stressed workers and warned the budget would hamper Michigan's ability to comply with a legal settlement mandating that it improve conditions for children needing foster care and protective services.

"We cannot afford to have any more children under our care killed or abused or neglected. It's our responsibility as a state," said Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Detroit Democrat.

The cuts to the 12,000-worker agency are needed because Republicans will not support Snyder's call for a surcharge on all power bills to cover emergency energy aid for low-income residents, said Rep. Peter MacGregor, a Republican from Kent County's Cannon Township and chairman of the House human services budget subcommittee.

"The governor wants a surcharge. My caucus will not support a surcharge," he said. "So we have to find the money within the budget, and that's what I did."

He said the detention facilities for juvenile offenders are too expensive and money can be saved by turning over their care to private operators. The facilities are in Escanaba, Grayling and Whitmore Lake.

MacGregor also said DHS managers could handle overseeing more front-line caseworkers.

Sen. Bruce Caswell, a Hillsdale Republican and head of the panel in charge of the Senate's human services spending plan, said he found a way to cover most of the $60 million cost of the low-income heating assistance program without Snyder's proposed surcharge on energy bills. His plan would shift federal money into the program, avoiding the amount of cuts proposed by the House.

The Senate proposal also would not close the three detention centers.

"Intelligent people can differ. That's why we have the process in place that we have. The governor has a budget — the House, the Senate. We'll reach compromises and come up with the best ideas from all three," Caswell said.

Ray Holman, spokesman for United Auto Workers Local 6000, the union for many DHS workers, said Michigan should not eliminate jobs of caseworkers charged with protecting children from abuse and neglect along with employees who determine eligibility for Medicaid and other safety-net programs.

"We're just getting stabilized now on child welfare issues. This budget is regressive and puts us back in a place where kids are going to be at risk," he said.

A March report by monitors appointed by a federal judge found that Michigan had reduced the number of child welfare caseloads per worker, thanks to a hiring blitz in 2011. The report also said the state had trouble determining how many children are living under one roof.

A 2006 lawsuit by New York-based Children's Rights led to an agreement to make changes at the child welfare agency.

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House Bill 4217: http://1.usa.gov/149B7Xm

Senate Bill 192: http://1.usa.gov/16NQAYQ

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Email David Eggert at deggert(at)ap.org and follow him at http://twitter.com/DavidEggert00

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