Pa. high court strikes down law that ended assistance program for poor

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Former Gov. Tom Corbett, who signed law that was overturned on Wednesday.

The state Supreme Court on Wednesday struck down a law that eliminated a cash assistance program for the poorest Pennsylvanians.

A coalition of human service groups and former assistance recipients had sued the state over the 2012 ending of the General Assistance program, which had supported about 60,000 people, many disabled, with a $200 monthly stipend.

The Supreme Court ruling, which reversed a 2013 Commonwealth Court ruling, agreed with the lawsuit’s central allegation — the law cutting General Assistance was passed in an unconstitutional manner, violating the “single subject rule.”

The bill started as a three-page piece of legislation in 2011 dealing with public assistance residency requirements, but by the time it was signed into law by Gov. Tom Corbett in 2012, it had morphed into an omnibus human services bill ending General Assistance. Its provisions included creating a pilot program for 20 counties to consolidate a number of human service programs into a single block grant, changing the timing of a work requirement for Pennsylvanians applying for welfare, and imposing a tax on nursing homes.

Describing it as a “zombie” bill, the court also took issue with how legislators followed — or didn’t follow — the requirement that a bill receive three readings in each chamber of the General Assembly.

“It is plain, then, that neither the House nor the Senate considered the substantive provisions facially enumerated in Act 80 three times,” Justice Debra Todd wrote in the court’s opinion.

Citing this unconstitutionality, the court struck down the entire multi-part law.

“We are still reviewing the decision and possible implications,” Steve Miskin, a spokesperson for the House majority leader, said Wednesday. He said the county human services block-grant portion of the law has been successful.

“We continue to have the ruling under review, and it’s important to note that the court did not issue an opinion on the substance of the legislation, but rather invalidated the law due to the procedures used by the legislature to enact the law. We are working to digest the ruling and its the impacts on the disabled community, county block grants, the state budget and lawmaking going forward,” said Jennifer Kocher, a spokeswoman for Senate Republicans.

J.J. Abbott, a spokesman for Gov. Wolf, said his office is reviewing the ruling.

“At a time when many Pennsylvanians wait two years to appeal their denial of Social Security disability benefits and many people are seeking treatment for opioid use, we hope that today’s decision will restore some balance to Pennsylvania’s safety net,” Richard Weishaupt, a senior attorney at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, who argued the case in court, said in a statement.

State Rep. Gene DiGirolamo (R., Bucks), who chairs the House Human Services Committee and who voted against the 2012 bill, said he would like to see General Assistance reinstated.

“The people who were getting this, that money was like a lifeline,” he said, adding that many who were waiting for Social Security disability determinations were domestic violence victims or people with drug and alcohol addictions.

The program cost the state about $150 million annually.

Most state General Assistance programs serve people who are very poor and do not have minor children, according to a 2015 review of such programs from the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. These childless individuals generally don’t qualify for any federally funded assistance if they don’t receive Supplemental Security Income.

Thus, such programs are “a safety net of last resort,” according to the analysis.

The lead plaintiff in the case had been receiving General Assistance because rheumatoid arthritis and other illnesses had left her unable to work as a home health care attendant. She had been using the assistance as a stopgap, as applying for Social Security disability is a lengthy process.

It’s unclear whether and when the program will be reinstated, or what other changes might result.

A spokesman for the state’s Department of Human Services did not respond Wednesday.