Republicans call for action from welfare reform conferees

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STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, MAY 28, 2014….Republican lawmakers and candidates on Wednesday pressed for a conference committee to kick out a welfare reform bill, claiming the Democrat-controlled Legislature has been quick to increase taxes but slow in pushing for savings and reform.

Participants at a press conference outside the State House, organized by Rep. Shaunna O’Connell (R-Taunton), signed a letter to House Speaker Robert DeLeo demanding action from a conference committee appointed last November to reconcile House and Senate-approved welfare reform bills.

The letter notes Auditor Suzanne Bump’s office reported issues within the Department of Transitional Assistance a year ago this week, and there are 64 days remaining for formal sessions this year. “Time is dwindling down quickly and these reforms are needed,” the letter said.

“And if you want a comparison, let’s look at the fact that the gas tax, gas and cigarette tax, were increased in the past within a matter of months, yet we still wait 15 months later for welfare reforms,” O’Connell said, adding that welfare reform isn’t “rocket science.”

While one conferee said the committee hasn’t met this year, the House Republican on the conference committee, Kimberly Ferguson of Holden, said discussions within the conference committee continue and she has been communicating with the House and Senate chairs. Ferguson did not attend O’Connell’s press conference.

DeLeo told reporters that the House has “already taken some strong action” on welfare reforms, which are now policy, requiring photo identification on electronic benefit transfer cards.

“I know they’ve been exchanging proposals for a while now,” DeLeo told reporters, saying he could not disclose the specific proposals under consideration in the conference committee. He said, “The House took the lead in last year’s reforms.”

At the press conference, O’Connell’s group was joined by one of the conference committee’s other Republican members, Sen. Robert Hedlund of Weymouth. Republican lawmakers who were at the press conference included Reps. Geoff Diehl of Whitman, Marc Lombardo of Billerica, Ryan Fattman of Sutton and Leah Cole of Peabody.

>>> For a video report on the press conference, go to: <<<

Hedlund said the conference committee has only met once, a brief get-together in which they voted to close deliberations to the public. “So we really haven’t met, for all intents and purposes,” he said.

Hedlund said fellow lawmakers had told him last year they were planning to finish the bill by Thanksgiving. “And it’s an even further mystery to me that [after] every inquiry I made, I was told, ‘Well, the other branch doesn’t want to talk,’” he said.

Republican candidates who joined the O’Connell press conference included Tim Hempton, a dentist running for the 12th Norfolk House seat; Karen Anderson, a candidate for the 2nd Franklin House seat; Caroline Colarusso, a candidate for the 31st Middlesex seat; Joseph Monju, a candidate for the 23rd Middlesex seat; and Colleen Maloney, running in the 10th Plymouth House District.

Hempton said he was invited to the press conference by O’Connell. O’Connell holds regular phone conference calls with some Republican candidates on Monday nights, Hempton said, adding that O’Connell and Diehl are mentoring them.

The conference committee is working on two bills (H 3756 and S 1806), and the conferees include Reps. Brian Dempsey (D-Haverhill), Kay Khan (D-Newton) and Ferguson. The Senate conferees, aside from Hedlund, include Sens. Jennifer Flanagan (D-Leominster) and Michael Barrett (D-Lexington).

O’Connell said Ferguson had been invited to the press conference. Ferguson told the News Service she had received an email from O’Connell about the press conference, but it had a typo, stating June 28 instead of May 28.

Ferguson added that as a conference committee member it would have been inappropriate for her to appear at the press conference anyway.

Ferguson said she has maintained “open lines” of communication with the two chairs of the conference committee and she understands the frustration some feel over the slow pace. The subject is complicated, she said.

“It’s going to continue to march forward,” Ferguson said.

Ferguson said O’Connell has not spoken to her about any concerns she might have, and they have not had a “one-to-one conversation” about the issue.

The chairs of the conference committee, Dempsey and Flanagan, were not immediately available for comment on Wednesday.

During the Senate fiscal 2015 budget debate last week, Flanagan said the committee was actively working towards a compromise.

The House unanimously passed its version in November 2013, after the Senate voted 37 to 1 in June 2013 on its own welfare reform legislation.

[Andy Metzger contributed reporting]

Copyright 2014 State House News Service

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