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State Lawmakers Weigh In On Public Assistance Bills

Michael Coghlan/ flickr

At the heart of modern political debates is the role and size of government: to expand or regulate, support or restrict. And for many, the crux of the issue is how government should handle the disadvantaged. This week, Florida lawmakers considered two sides of the same coin: public assistance.

Public safety nets or entitlement programs are either the saving grace of a progressive society, or a cancer on American free market morality. Depends on who you ask. This week lawmakers considered both. Thursday the Senate took up a bill aimed at slowing the cycle of homelessness in Florida. The Sunshine State was ground zero for the housing market collapse, and Republican Senator David Simmons of Longwood says we’re still recovering.

“As you know, homelessness rates in Florida have risen. And the state now ranks third in the number of people affected,” he said.

Now Simmons is offering a plan that could free up more state funds for rent assistance. Simmons’ bill would give local governments more leeway when using state housing initiative partnership or SHIP funds.

“This has a dramatic impact. The real strength of the language is the portion that gives the local governments the ability to use a portion of their SHIP funds in order to do rent subsidies and prevent evictions,” he said.

Simmons says the way to slow the cycle of homelessness and poverty is to simply get people in housing.

“The key element of rapid rehousing is the housing first philosophy which offers housing without preconditions, such as employment, income, lack of a criminal background or sobriety. If issues such as these need to be addressed, the household can address them most effectively once they are in housing,” he said.

The Senate passed the bill Thursday. The measure is still awaiting a full vote in the House.

Meanwhile, Republican Representative Matt Gaetz of Shalimar wants to change the way the state allocates benefits for the families of undocumented immigrants. While eligible family members can receive assistance, undocumented immigrants cannot. Still, a portion of their wages is factored into the household’s total income, to calculate their need. Gaetz says these families can effectively get more assistance.

“So you could have a circumstance where, two houses, right next door to each other, with the exact same income. But the household that did not have an illegal alien would be ineligible for that temporary cash assistance, and the household with an illegal alien would be eligible. And this cures that inequity,”  he said.

Under Gaetz’s bill, the entire income of undocumented people would be tallied into their family’s overall total. The increase could render some families ineligible for assistance entirely. And Gaetz says that’s kind of the point.

“One of the reasons for the bill is to dis-incentivize illegal immigration that exists for the purpose of access to state benefits. That would be I think the organizing principle of the bill, to not establish a circumstance where illegal immigration leads to the drawdown of tax dollars from hard-working Floridians,” he said.

But opponents say the new calculus could have some unintended consequences. Here’s Representative Jose Javier Rodriguez of Miami.

“From a policy standpoint, the policy outcome is something that I think nobody here would support, which is the following: it’s either an incentive to work less, it’s an incentive to not work at all, or worse it’s an incentive to move out of the household. So that that person who is a breadwinner, potentially a father in this example is no longer a part of the household. Why on earth for policy reasons would we want to do this?” he asked.

The House passed the bill along party lines, and Senate is expected to vote on it Monday.