JEFFERSON CITY - Missouri's House Republicans are seizing the initiative to take advantage of federal welfare reform.
After last year's failure by the legislature to pass anything and no major push by Democrats yet this year, GOP lawmakers have proposed their own plan -- one tougher than Democrats have proposed in the past.
The GOP plan takes away welfare benefits if they do not immediately begin working, begin job training or at least apply for a job on the very day they sign up for assistance.
The state legislature has waited long enough without producing an official plan to implement the federal reform, said Rep. Pat Kelley, R-Lee's Summit.
"Well, certainly it's time we do that," he said. "It's important to put it into the statutes so that we have clear instructions on how to do that."
So far this session, Democrats have yet to introduce a comprehensive plan to guide federal reform, though attempts were made in 1997 by Sen. Joe Maxwell, D-Mexico, among others.
Last year, Maxwell's bill died in the closing days of the legislature after House members complained the bill was far too huge for them to consider on just a few days notice.
If Democrats don't push hard for a plan this session, it may be because there's little incentive to do so. The 1996 federal act gave the state administration broad powers to implement the reform.
With a Democratic administration in power, the party may not feel the need to set the reform's agenda with legislation.
Meanwhile, they have introduced smaller and more specific welfare bills, many of which have again been proposed by Maxwell.
"This year I kind of broke it down into what I thought was important this particular year," Maxwell said.
Kelley said the Democratic efforts thus far have not been as significant as the GOP plan.
"My understanding is there's some minor things that some of the Democrats have talked about," Kelley said, "but nothing as substantial as this."
The GOP plan would establish the Work First Welfare Reform Act, and make finding work for welfare recipients a top priority of the Social Services Dept.
But the GOP approach could face a tough road in the Democratic-controlled legislature.
The chairman of the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee, Sen. J. B. "Jet" Banks, D-St. Louis, said there are certain provisions he will want for any plan to be acceptable.
He stressed the importance of including day care for the children of former welfare recipients, as well as transportation to their new jobs.
Provisions for both are included in the Republican bill.
"Certainly transportation and child care are two of the big obstacles to people as they're trying to go to work," Kelley said.
In addition, Banks said a new center should be established to help recipients locate the right jobs in the first place.
"We need a placement center in the state of Missouri to make sure these people are trained...for gainful employment."
Banks said such a provision would help assure that "a person who leaves welfare will gladly walk away with some kind of security."
The Republican bill allows money to be directed to "expenses related to job placement," but does not specifically include a job placement center.
Kelley said he's not sure including a center like Banks suggests is worthwhile because the state already has a number of offices striving to find employment for welfare recipients.
"We'd certainly welcome any suggestion and take a look at that," he said, "but I think most of that is taking place right now."