Sen. Gazelka’s bill on state residency for welfare benefit cards tabled

By T.W. Budig, ECM Capitol Reporter

ECM photo by T.W. Budig Sen. Paul Gazelka’s, R-Brainerd, bill on increasing residency requirements for welfare and requiring a photo on welfare electronic benefit cards was tabled Tuesday, in a Senate committee. Gazelka said he wants to do more research, and rework the bill.

Legislation requiring a photo ID on electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards — the welfare card that’s the main tool for issuing food support and temporary cash assistance — and that seeks to increase state residency requirements for welfare had a bumpy start in the Senate Health and Human Services Committee Tuesday, Feb. 14.

District 12 Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Brainerd, said his bill stems from concerns voiced by constituents, one in Morrison County, about people moving to Minnesota solely for the welfare benefits.

Gazelka’s legislation, besides requiring that EBT debit cards beginning July 1 include a photo of the cardholder, would also increase state residency requirements to receive welfare benefits from 30 to 60 days.

Gazelka said he does not consider a 60-day residency requirement excessive. It does not hurt people in Minnesota receiving welfare benefits, nor would he want to do that, he said.

But the appropriateness and legality of Gazelka’s bill was questioned by Democratic lawmakers and others.

Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, questioned the idea the state is indeed a welfare magnet, saying the evidence for it seems more anecdotal than number-based. Further, Hayden said that the welfare-magnet idea served to stigmatize people receiving welfare benefits.

“I think those are valid questions,” Gazelka said of concerns raised by Hayden.

Mark Toogood of the Minnesota Health and Human Services (HHS) Department said the percentage of newcomers to the state applying for welfare benefits falls within demographic trends.

As for the EBT cards, another HHS official said that the head of a household, besides their EBT card, could obtain a second EBT card that another family member could use.

However, only the head of household EBT card could be used to draw cash assistance, the second card is limited to food only, he said.

According to a fact sheet from the HHS, effective this summer the head of household’s name will be printed on their EBT card.

The card will include the statement, “It is unlawful to use this card to purchase tobacco products or alcoholic beverages.”

As for the residency requirements, Gazelka and committee legal counsel noted a Wisconsin State Supreme Court ruling upholding a 60-day residency requirement in that state.

But Senate legal counsel Joan White also said the Wisconsin ruling hadn’t been challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court.

American Civil Liberties Union-Minnesota Legal Counsel Theresa Nelson in testifying to the committee argued that Gazelka’s own explanation for his bill — that it stems from concerns over people coming to Minnesota to collect welfare benefits — runs afoul of the 1969 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Shapiro v. Thompson in which the court determined the U.S. Constitution guaranteed a right to travel without unreasonable restrictions.

A high standard for states to restrict travel has been established by the courts, Nelson said.

“This bill doesn’t look like it’s ready,” Hayden said.

Gazelka told committee members that he was willing to work with them on the bill. The bill was tabled.

But others argued the legislation was an affront to the poor.

Debra Howze, of the Welfare Rights Committee, called it mean-spirited and an attempt to take away already meager state welfare benefits from the poor. “Just because you need help from the state doesn’t mean you don’t have morals or understanding,” she said.

Wednesday, Gazelka said he agreed to table the bill for a couple of reasons, and wanted to clarify a few things. “This is only for people moving from another state to Minnesota. Instead of a 30-day waiting period it will be 60 days.”

He emphasized it is only a residency-requirement waiting period. “In fact I heard stories from people who have businesses in Little Falls that said they had people who moved from Chicago to Minnesota to get the benefits,” said Gazelka.

“We want the benefits for those that are needy here in Minnesota — that’s our responsibility to take care of people in our state,” he said.

Gazelka said he may take the photo ID requirement out of the bill. “I may take that off, because I didn’t find out until I was presenting the bill that it was going to cost the state about $500,000 to do that,” he said.

“In the end, the issue is ‘should people be moving to Minnesota to get benefits’ and ‘is it wrong to change the waiting period from 30 days to 60 days,’” he said. “I think that’s a responsible use of our dollars.”

It is also difficult to pinpoint what “benefits” actually are and what they cost, because there are so many different benefits, said Gazelka. It’s not just EBT cards, but renter’s credits, county emergency funds, and more, he said.

“They’ve estimated in committee that 5 – 14 percent (of those who receive benefits) move to Minnesota to get our benefits,” said Gazelka. “It’s an issue that’s just hard to get to the bottom of; I’m willing to take a little more time to get it right.”