Several advocacy groups have joined together to file a lawsuit in Commonwealth Court against the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare challenging Act 80, which among other things, eliminated monthly general assistance cash grants of $205 a month. Before the change, there were 68,000 low-income Pennsylvanians who received that benefit.
“These are people who have nothing else. This is what’s keeping people from becoming homeless, is keeping them in their prescription drugs and their food…it has a tremendous impact on these people,” said Carol Horowitz, Managing Attorney for The Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania, one of the groups who filed the suit.
The 66-page lawsuit asks the Commonwealth Court to issue a preliminary injunction to stop implementation of, and completely nullify Act 80, which would restore the cash grants and revoke the pilot block grants program also included in the act.
The Plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Billie Washington v. Department of Public Welfare, include Community Legal Services, Pennsylvania Mental Health Consumers Association, Mental Health Association in Pennsylvania, Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania and Drug and Alcohol Service Providers Organization of Pennsylvania, among others.
The suit alleges Act 80, which was passed over the summer, is unconstitutional for several reasons. Among them is that legislation in Pennsylania is only supposed to deal with one issue. This legislation dealt with seven different issues. Also, the suit claims legislation skirted state law by not being considered on three separate days in the House and in the Senate before a final vote was taken. The goal of that provision it to give the public and regulators time to discuss and fully understand a piece of legislation.
“In the case of this statute, most of the things that were in the statute were only considered on one day in the house and in the Senate. And it was done like in the day within the last two days before it was passed,” said Horowitz.
Act 80 was part of a bill – HB 1261 - that by the time it was signed by Governor Corbett on June 30th bore little resemblance to the original legislation. Most prominently the law changes the way social services are funded by introducing a block grant pilot program.
The PA General Assembly has in the past appropriated money specifically for certain public welfare items such as intellectual disability services or mental health services. Under the new plan, twenty counties -- including Allegheny, Beaver and Butler-- were selected to receive their funds through the block grant program allowing those counties to spend the money on services that could be different than for what they were originally appropriated.
“You can take part of the mental health money and spend it on people who are homeless. Or you can take part of the intellectual disability money and spend it on people with mental illness. You can mess around with how you actually spend these appropriations. And that, in and of itself is a problem under the constitution,” said Horowitz.
In all, money for social services was cut by ten percent in the 2012 Pennsylvania budget compared to the 2011 budget.