Welfare reform has always been a highly charged topic, and state Sen. Mike Regan is serving as a lightning rod for the subject.

In July, the Senate overwhelmingly passed legislation, 40-9, intended to make sure government aid is getting to the right people and being used correctly.

The measure, awaiting House approval, would tighten public assistance rules for ex-cons with drug and sex offenses, eliminate loopholes regarding the value of vehicles that welfare recipients can own and dictate how much Lottery winnings they can collect.

Regan, a Republican from Cumberland County, said that the legislation was designed with two purposes in mind.

“First,” he said, “to demonstrate to the taxpayers of Pennsylvania that we value their significant tax contributions and are willing to hold the beneficiaries of those tax dollars accountable.

“More importantly,” he said, “to preserve the public assistance for those who are truly in need and deserving.”

In one sense, Regan is correct. Lawmakers do value taxpayers’ significant tax contributions, because they are always hitting us up for more. But that is a debate for another day.

Regan, beating the drum for welfare reform, noted that some of the major components of the aforementioned revisions have already passed House muster, and with overwhelming support.

But it is Regan’s insistence that welfare requirements on sex offenders and drug users be strengthened that has women’s rights groups up in arms.

Regan favors barring welfare recipients from getting benefits if they fail to comply with Megan’s law requirements. And those on public assistance who have been convicted of drug crimes would be subject to drug testing for 10 years in order to qualify for food stamps and other benefits.

Ann Sanders of Just Harvest, a Pittsburgh-based group that lobbies for programs to help feed the hungry, said government should be doing more to help ex-cons stay clean, not adding more hoops to jump through.

“The prison system is the punishment,” she said. 

“Once you’ve done your time, the punishment should be over. This will create a revolving door.”

Tara Murtha, a spokeswoman for the Women’s Law Project, said the Senate proposal is “dangerous and counterproductive” and will only “disproportionately target mothers struggling to recover from drug addiction, domestic violence survivors and survivors of sexual violence.”

Democratic Sen. John Yudichak of Luzerne County agrees with Regan.

“Suspending benefits for a decade after multiple drug convictions is a reasonable measure to deter illegal conduct and demand compliance with the law,” he said.

A 10-year suspension seems a bit draconian. Perhaps that language could be reworked to a probation-type penalty.

But reforming public assistance as a whole is a good idea. Welfare was never meant to become a way of life, it was a way to help the poor until they could transition back into the workforce. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 was the latest federal government attempt to encourage the move from welfare to work.

We don’t begrudge the public assistance that worthy individuals receive, but we do not condone those who cheat the government, and ultimately taxpayers, by receiving more than their share. 

Those unscrupulous individuals are why the system needs to be tightened.

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