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Opponents to Walker welfare overhaul say it would hurt the poor

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MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Opponents of Gov. Scott Walker's welfare overhaul package, which includes what would be some of the nation's toughest work requirements for food stamp recipients, said Wednesday that the proposed changes would be counter-productive and make it more difficult for the poor to get out of poverty.

Walker's proposals were the subject of a joint public hearing Wednesday, two weeks after the two-term Republican incumbent called for the Legislature to take up the measures in a special session. An Assembly committee planned to vote on them Thursday, a quick turnaround that could make them available for passage in February.

Democrats and other opponents argue the changes were going too fast without consideration of what they would mean to the poor people affected.

But Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos co-sponsored nine of the bills, a signal that they're poised to move easily through the GOP-controlled Assembly. He said that increasing the work and job training requirement for able-bodied adults and, for the first time, parents on food stamps would help get them back in the workforce.

"Public assistance was never intended to be permanent and this package will help us do our part in moving more people into the workforce and preventing fraud and abuse," Vos testified.

Republican state Sen. Chris Kapenga, another co-sponsor, said his parents were on food stamps and he grew up in poverty. That personal experience, along with learning the value of hard work by hauling manure on a pig farm, taught him the importance of holding down a job, he said.

"You can't get there if you're not working," Kapenga said. "It's the only solution."

Walker has defended the package as a way to get everyone who is able to hold down a job into the workforce. Wisconsin's unemployment rate is 3 percent, which is tied for its lowest on record, and employers have long complained of having a worker shortage to fill available openings.

But opponents say they will actually make it harder for people to get out of poverty. Those registered against the bills include the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, Hunger Task Force, the Wisconsin Council of Churches, the Wisconsin Alliance for Women's Health, and Kids Forward.

Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group funded by the billionaire Koch brothers, was the only group to register in support of the work requirements for food stamp recipients.

The bills heard Wednesday would:

— expand the current food stamp work requirement that only covers able-bodied childless adults to include parents with school-aged children between the ages of 6 and 18 starting in October 2019. Walker also wants to increase the minimum work or job training hours for both adults and parents from 20 to 30 hours a week. If enacted, Wisconsin would be one of the first states to increase work requirements for food stamp recipients to 30 hours a week, the maximum allowed by federal law.

The current requirement has led to about 25,000 able-bodied food stamp participants finding work and more than 80,000 cases of members who lost their benefits through December.

— require drug screening, testing and treatment to be eligible for public housing. Walker has already asked President Donald Trump's administration for approval to drug-test Medicaid and food stamp recipients.

— require photo IDs to participate in the food stamp program, which would require federal approval and has only been done in Massachusetts and Missouri. Critics say this would be cumbersome to administer and wouldn't help anyone get a job, while supporters say it would cut down on fraud.

— prohibit participation in Medicaid for any able-bodied adults who refused to cooperate with paternity determination of a child, establishing or enforcing any child support order or obtaining other payments a child has a right to receive.

— forbid anyone from receiving food stamps and other Medicaid benefits if they own a home worth double the median value home — or about $321,000 — or own a vehicle worth more than $20,000.

"We don't think someone driving a brand new Cadillac or Lexus should be on public assistance," Kapenga said.

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