JP Observer: Gov. Baker twice rejects giving poor families benefits for newborns; Uses process devices to hinder funding

By Sandra Storey

Special to the Gazette

“Charlie Baker is a great governor.” One ad for him this month begins with a woman saying that. He is running for a second term, and his ads are flooding the local TV stations this month ahead of the Sept. 4 primary. The ad is full of smiles—from her, from people at a groundbreaking and, close up, with a charming grin from him. The ad repeats what has become a major media mantra the past two years: Baker is “popular.”

In his recent handling of the 2019 appropriations bill, the Republican governor’s behavior toward poor families in the Commonwealth was definitely not “great,” to put it mildly.

The trouble started late in the workday on Thurs., July 27 when Baker unexpectedly vetoed the repeal of the what’s been called “the cap on kids” or the “family cap” in the 2019 state budget. The 23-year-old law the Legislature voted to repeal says babies born to families already receiving aid (TAFDC, Transitional Aid to Families with Dependent Children) cannot receive additional aid.

The repeal of the cap on kids, endorsed by a coalition of 122 organizations and more than 80 members of the House alone, had passed the House and Senate and their conference committee on the appropriations bill the week before.

OK, so the Legislature had only three days to override Baker’s veto before the session ended. Somewhat difficult, but doable, as it was with some other line item vetoes.

Unfortunately, with this one item, Baker turned what would normally just be hard to accomplish into something almost impossible. Some people at the State House, perhaps including him, at first thought the Legislature would never be able to overcome the tricks he pulled.

Baker attached what was called a “poison pill” to the language surrounding the cap repeal. He added that adults receiving TAFDC who receive social security for disability (SSI) would have to count that as income for determining family benefits, if the repeal were to stay. That would knock thousands of families off the rolls or reduce their payments significantly, according to experts.

He gave the Legislature a Sophie’s Choice of sorts: Either reduce existing benefits for poor families with parents on SSI or continue to keep families with new babies from getting allotted benefits. Either way, according to advocates, about 8,000-9,000 poor families in Massachusetts would be adversely affected.

As if to seal the bad deal, Baker also issued a response that was so complex in structure it would take a procedural miracle to get through the Legislature by the end of the session.

“It was shocking to us,” said Naomi Meyer, senior attorney in the Welfare Law Unit of Greater Boston Legal Services, a member of the coalition. “It was sneaky and underhanded.”

“Poor children versus poor children is an unacceptable trade-off,” she added.

JP resident Georgia Mattison—project manager with Poor People’s United Fund, also a member of the coalition—was another shocked advocate who went right back to contacting community supporters and legislators with freshly prepared fact sheets about the process in her hands.

“Such cruelty to the most vulnerable!” she said of the unusual veto.

Determined not to be stymied, first thing Friday morning, July 28, Mattison and Meyer, along with Mass Law Reform Institute Senior Attorney Deborah Harris, a coalition leader, and a team of other advocates and legislators, went right back to work. They basically had to figure out and explain the upcoming process to community supporters and other legislators and get two pieces of legislation (the repeal and turning down the added piece about social security) through various committees and back and forth through both houses of the Legislature before the session ended three days later.

Sure enough, the Legislature managed to turn down Baker’s double whammy by 6:30 p.m. on Tues., July 31. Just in time. Or so everybody thought.

“We couldn’t have done it without Jeffrey Sanchez,” Meyer said of the JP representative who is chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, which oversees budget matters. She said he had given an impassioned speech in favor of the cap repeal on the House floor.

Mattison also credited Sanchez and praised local state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz and Rep. Liz Malia—long-time supporters of lifting the cap.

Baker vetoed their response on Friday, Aug. 3. Because the Legislature was already out of session, the House and Senate will have to take it up again in January when they reconvene. The family cap repeal had been set to take effect on Jan. 1, 2019, and that can’t happen now.

Meyer said Baker proposed to the Legislature to count SSI money as income against TAFDC eligibility in 2016 and 2017, and it failed resoundingly. Earlier this year Baker hadn’t proposed the SSI piece he put in his cap repeal response, Meyer said.

The language in Baker’s letter to the House and Senate describing his first convoluted response shows a startling combination of lack of empathy for and basic misunderstanding of the economics of poor families here.

He wrote: “Eliminating the ‘family cap’ without other accompanying changes could have the perverse effect of reducing incentives for TAFDC recipients to get back to work, and cause existing inequities in the TAFDC program to persist and expand.”

Keep in mind that for an additional child, a TAFDC family would get only $100 a month and a small annual clothing allowance. Hardly enough to “reduce incentives” to get back to work. Hardly “perverse.” And what is the negative nonsense about “existing inequities…?”

If the letter weren’t so perverse and full of inequities itself, it would be funny.

Baker goes on to say that TAFDC should be like federal food stamps in counting SSI the same as other income. Nationally, very few states do that, according to Meyer.

To illustrate the injustice of his behavior, Baker has been bragging that Massachusetts had a surplus of $1 billion as of June 30. Meanwhile, he vetoed spending $13 million—a measly 1.3 percent of the surplus—for basic necessities for more than 8,000 poor families.

Unfortunately, Baker used the language and illogic of prejudice against poor people that is common to Republicans nationally. Many of us in Massachusetts never thought we would hear that from this Republican governor. We thought someone who defended the Affordable Care Act wouldn’t ever use a poison pill to try to thwart giving a little more money to poor people for a newborn child. I guess we were wrong.

Rep. Sanchez and Rep. Marjorie Decker of Cambridge, a lead sponsor of the “Lift the Cap on Kids” bill, vowed, as advocates and others at the State House have, to take up the bill again immediately in January.

Calling Baker’s veto “heartless, cruel, shameful,” on her Facebook page, Decker pointed out that the poverty rate in Massachusetts is now a whopping 10.4 percent.

“If we’re lucky,” Decker wrote with a subtle reference to the November election, the bill will pass again in early 2019 “with a governor who will actually sign it.”

But if we’re unlucky, Baker could use his re-election in November to go full blast Republican on all of Massachusetts, as he did with poor people this year, without being concerned about consequences in the voting booths again.

Sandra Storey is founder and former publisher and editor of the Jamaica Plain Gazette.

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