With state budget negotiations making rapid headway towards a final agreement, a proposal that initially would have diverted $165 million from a fund meant to help welfare recipients is running into resistance from a scattered group of health care and community activists, according to information obtained by The Record.
Sources say that negotiators for the state Senate presented a scaled-down version of the plan during an initial round of budget meetings last week.
That smaller plan would use $109 million from the state’s surplus in the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program to spur the recruitment of health care workers. The surplus is expected to reach more than $1.6 billion by year’s end and stems from the dramatic decline in welfare rolls during recent years.
However, the spending is still being labeled a “raid” on TANF money by critics calling for those funds to be used solely to benefit families on the state’s welfare rolls. The TANF program replaced more traditional welfare efforts in 1997 and remains the state’s primary program for serving the poor.
Pointing to the need for additional job training and child care slots, the critics have sought to “form a broad coalition based on moral principles, but have run into difficulties in making their case,” one source familiar with the effort told The Record.
Groups opposing the Senate’s plan, including New York City-based Housing Works, want TANF money to be used exclusively to help the “hard to serve poor,” including the mentally ill, people infected with AIDS/HIV, and low- income victims of domestic violence.
Explaining the Senate’s position as an effort “to encourage the transition from welfare to work,” Mark Hansen, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, R-Brunswick, said their proposal “fits within the guidelines governing the TANF program.
“The governor proposed used $50 million of that (the TANF surplus) to recruit health care workers,” said Hansen.
“The Senate has expanded on the governor’s proposal and increased that amount … to recruit entry level workers in the fields of home care, hospital workers, nursing homes, mental health and foster care,” Hansen said. “This money will also be available to assist in the retention of health care workers in those fields.”
Separate from the use of TANF dollars, Hansen confirmed that budget negotiators are discussing using other funds to provide a 2 percent raise in the base salaries of health care workers who staff local non-profit agencies — bringing starting salaries to those in the mental health field to $16,626. Currently, starting salaries average just $16,300 a year.
While not commenting specifically on the ongoing budget talks, a recent report by the Fiscal Policy Institute pointed out that the more than $1.6 billion surplus in TANF funds expected to be accumulated by the end of this fiscal year “provide(s) New York state with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fight poverty and lift poor families towards independence and self-support.”
The Senate’s plan to use a chunk of that surplus for health care workers could lead to signing and longevity bonuses for agency staffers. It was formally included last week on the agenda of the Human Services and Labor Budget Conference Committee that is hashing-out the final details of a deal covering the social services portion of the state budget, The Record has learned.
When asked about the issue, one key advocate, Joseph Glazer, president of the Mental Health Association of New York State summarized the issue as one pitting long overdue staff raises against other crucial considerations.
“There is no question that direct care workers are underpaid across the board,” said Glazer. “The question is whether or not this is the proper solution or even a solution.”