We've heard a lot about the property tax crisis and the transportation crisis and the pension crisis and the health care crisis and the school funding crisis since Gov. Ed Rendell took office in 2003.
Now we're starting to learn about the welfare crisis during the Rendell administration.
Unlike most states, where welfare recipients are steered off government assistance into private-sector jobs, Pennsylvania has been adding people to welfare at an alarming rate.
Since Rendell became governor, Pennsylvania's welfare rolls have swelled by more than 350,000.
"Under Rendell, 360,000 new people were added to the welfare rolls in his first four years alone at a cost of nearly $3 billion in state taxpayer dollars," said state Rep. Mike Turzai, chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee. "This has to stop, whether Rendell, his welfare secretary, or his top aides want it to or not. The age of Rendell’s welfare free-for-all have come to an end."
Turzai's committee has held four public hearings so far on welfare reform.
Two former state officials testified Monday about procedural changes to the Department of Public Welfare under the Rendell administration that have led to abuses of the system and a lower rate of fraud investigations.
Mike Hayes is the former operations manager of the Office of Inspector General (OIG). Becky Hayes is the former central region's investigations manager for the Office of Inspector General.
"What (our) committee has uncovered is that the Rendell administration has turned a blind eye to fraud and abuse within our state welfare programs," Turzai said. "(The Rendell administration has) allowed millions in taxpayer dollars to be taken by those who abuse the system. "
Prior to 2003, welfare caseworkers worked hand-in-hand with the OIG field investigators, Turzai said in a press release. Under this collaborative effort, the caseworkers and the investigators had direct access to one another, where the caseworker could directly make an investigation referral to the OIG. In an effort to cut down on the amount of fraud, the OIG would make sure that welfare applicants provided accurate information through Application Verification Investigations (AVIs).
Mike Hayes told the committee that at the height of the AVI program, the investigators received close to 40,000 referrals a year; however in 2003 they began to see a decline to approximately half of that number. Hayes also noted that Department of Public Welfare Secretary Estelle Richman let it be known that she did not support the AVI program, stating that she would rather see people who committed fraud get on the system, rather than deny one welfare mother benefits.
The OIG deals exclusively with welfare fraud investigations, while the DPW handles all application procedures, according to Turzai. Procedural changes implemented after Rendell took office, changed the system so that the caseworkers no longer had one-on-one interaction with the investigators. The change added more bureaucracy to the system, making it so that all referrals had to be approved by a supervisor or office manager before the inspectors could be notified.
Becky Hayes described how this change in policy drastically reduced the amount of investigated fraud referrals. In
After several months she saw a decline in the number of referrals, to the point that when she left the OIG in 2005 there were some months when the monthly referral rate dropped to one or two, sometimes even having months with no case referrals at all.
Becky Hayes also commented on the department slogan "close your eyes and authorize."
She told the committee that under this campaign, as soon as applicants walked through the door, they could get whatever benefits they wanted.
"In my personal opinion, I don't believe there was the same level of concern (from the Rendell administration compared to former administrations) to address the integrity of the program,” Becky Hayes said. "I loved my job, I really didn’t want to retire, but my level of frustration at not being able to do anything (about the fraud cases) got to be too much."
You know what Rendell's response is to the charge that he's allowed welfare rolls to swell over the past four years: Republican are picking on poor people.
But what about the taxpayers of Pennsylvania? Don't they deserve a break? And how can a state without population growth add so many people to welfare. After all, Rendell touts his job growth numbers on a daily basis. If he's brought so many new jobs to Pennsylvania, why are so many people on welfare?
"We want the truly needy and deserving to get the help they need, but at the same time we need to root out fraud and abuse," Turzai said.
Less than four months into Rendell's second term, we've seen how inept his top administrators are in the handling of the Interstate 78 fiasco, where hundreds of motorists were stranded on a highway for 24 hours.
And now we have the State Ethics Commission looking into how two top Rendell aides gave more than $4 million in grants to groups that employ their spouses.
We also learned this year that the state is facing a $2 billion budget shortfall despite Rendell's assurances last year that he balanced the budget.
Broken promises on tax relief, inept government, massive spending and top Rendell aides who are ethically challenged. That's the Rendell legacy in a nutshell.
Can we redo the November 2006 election?