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Welfare changes in Florida include tougher penalties for recipients

TALLAHASSEE — Welfare recipients in Florida would face tougher penalties for failing to meet work requirements and some food stamp recipients could become ineligible if lawmakers in the Florida House have their way.

The chamber passed a set of changes to Florida's welfare laws Wednesday by an 82-38 vote with three Democrats joining Republicans in support. It's a move supporters say is supposed to help people who receive cash assistance from the state to find good jobs and discourage reliance on government.

"We're trying to help individuals, we're trying to curb fraud and abuse and get rid of this system of dependency," said Rep. Dane Eagle, R-Cape Coral, the bill sponsor. "We don't want people to be dependent on the state. We want them to be gainfully employed."

But opponents say Eagle's legislation (HB 23) — also a priority of House Speaker Richard Corcoran — is an attack on the poor.

"This body chooses to ignore the daily struggles of the working poor," said state Rep. Amy Mercado, D-Orlando.

People who receive cash assistance in Florida must meet work requirements unless they are unable to work. The requirement can be met by being employed or taking part in job training and preparation with CareerSource Florida, a quasi-private agency that connects businesses to potential employees. Recipients lose benefits if they fail to meet the requirement, unless they can show it is because of an emergency.

Failing to meet the terms of the requirement removes recipients from the welfare program for longer stretches of time under the proposed legislation. A first offense bounces a recipient from the program now for 10 days. Eagle's bill would increase that to one month. A second offense would increase the penalty from one month to three, a third offense from three months to six. Currently, there's no specific penalty for a fourth offense, whereas Eagle's bill would suspend someone for a year.

Mercado worries that some CareerSource offices could penalize recipients for small infractions like being late to meetings and that increased penalties will make things even harder for people who are trying to pull themselves out of poverty.

"Situations like having unreliable transportation and child care aren't isolated, one-time emergency situations," she said. "They are the daily, perpetual struggles of the working poor."

The bill does more than increase penalties.

It also sets up pilot programs to help welfare recipients find higher-paying jobs and requires CareerSource to work more closely with other state agencies to ensure each individual in the state's cash assistance program meets work requirements.

The pilot programs have some support in the Florida Senate, but there has been less enthusiasm for tougher penalties.

State Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, said it's a mischaracterization to say the House is working against the poor. On the contrary, she said, the state wants to help low-income adults find high-paying jobs by having state agencies work more closely together, including the Department of Economic Opportunity and CareerSource.

"We're not deserting our poor or our working poor," she said. "We want them to work, and we want to help them get better jobs."

Beyond changes to the mechanics of work requirements, the legislation tweaks programs meant to help the poor.

Recipients would not be able to use cash assistance to pay for medical marijuana, even though the voter-approved Amendment 2 created a state constitutional right for some patients to use the drug.

And it demands that the state get approval from the federal government to remove people from food stamps if they have more than $2,250 in assets. Lawmakers edited out provisions that could have kicked more than 200,000 people off the food stamp program.

Contact Michael Auslen at mauslen@tampabay.com. Follow @MichaelAuslen.

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