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Vt. Senate committee approves $1.36 b budget

Dave Gram, Associated Press

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) -- Budget writers in the Vermont Senate have completed work on their version of a fiscal 2014 state budget that includes new limits on a key welfare-to-work program.

The Senate's budget of $1.362 billion is about $2 million less than the budget the House passed about a month ago — that's less than a fifth of 1 percent difference.

Both versions of the budget, which is up for debate in the Senate on Wednesday, offer less-tough versions of limits the Shumlin administration wanted to place on the roughly 6,500 households on the state's Reach Up welfare-to-work program.

All three — the governor, House and Senate, would end Vermont's status as the only state that does not impose a time limit on participants in its program to move into the workforce. Deferments would be available for people deemed to have good reasons for not leaving the welfare-to-work program.

The program currently allows new mothers to receive benefits while they stay home for two years with their babies, without any expectation they will be returning to work. Under the version approved Monday by the Senate Appropriations Committee, that grace period would be cut to one year.

Sen. Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia and the committee's chairwoman, said the change would make the Reach Up program more closely mirror what goes on the in working world. The goal is to move people getting state assistance toward "societal norms," Kitchel said.

The committee rejected a recent proposal from the administration that would have pushed households off the program when they fall out of compliance with Reach Up rules for four months, which include requirements that recipients be looking for work or getting new training to prepare them for work.

Kitchel said the difficulty for state policy makers is separating families with legitimate need from those without it. She said some Reach Up recipients have other means of support beyond the $640 average monthly benefit recipient households get — offering the example of a live-in boyfriend. And she cited the testimony of one Reach Up caseworker who quoted a recipient as saying, "Reach Up gives me a reason not to work."

Christopher Curtis, a Vermont Legal Aid lawyer representing recipients, called the budget developments "the 'good, the bad, and the ugly' of policy-making."

He said it was good the committee rejected the administration's proposal for sanctions when families fall out of compliance.

"Unfortunately, the bad is approval of arbitrary time limits to Reach Up that have been shown to lead to bad outcomes for families, and may have serious consequences for other areas of the budget. The ugly is the process," which Curtis called rushed.