Ed Rendell, the Capitol press corps' much-missed chief executive/quote-machine, returned to the state Capitol today, calling his successor's decision to require an asset test of those applying for food stamps impractical and harmful.
In a rare instance of critiquing Republican Gov. Tom Corbett's policies since leaving office a year ago, Mr. Rendell, a Democrat, pointed to the federally mandated income limit as sufficient to determine who is eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
He contrasted that "means test," which Pennsylvania further limited to 160 percent of the poverty level during Mr. Rendell's administration, with the $2,000 cap on personal assets, such as personal savings, that the Department of Public Welfare has considered imposing. Senior citizens would maintain savings of $3,250, and the first vehicle owned by a household would be exempt.
"As long as you have the means test [on annual income], I don't know why you need an asset test," Mr. Rendell told reporters during a morning news conference, where he was flanked by a handful of House Democratic lawmakers. He also noted that most of the program's funding comes from federal dollars, and that the state pays for half of the administrative costs.
Re-instituting an asset test, which Mr. Rendell removed in 2008 due to the economic recession, would require re-training of caseworkers, whose workload would increase with a new array of bank statements and vehicle valuations to review. It also would strain food banks and charity programs as more needy Pennsylvanians are removed from the food stamp program, the Democrats said.
He delivered a letter urging Mr. Corbett to "take another look at the policy" to the governor's receptionist this morning.
Mr. Corbett has defended that planned policy, citing complaints that ineligible residents may be enrolling in the program. His press secretary, Kevin Harley, said the maximum asset level and implementation date are still under discussion, but defended the change as necessary to root out fraud and disputed that it would increase costs.
"Gov. Rendell is an expert on food stamps - the number of people on food stamps nearly doubled under him, from 930,000 to about 1.7 million," Mr. Harley said.
The former governor said cases of fraud involving the food stamp program decreased dramatically during his administration, and he highlighted the millions of dollars in bonuses that the state received from Washington for its low error rate.
As for his decision to speak out, Rendell said he didn't mean it in a partisan fashion, telling reporters later that he plans to voice his opinion on policy issues "where I think there's unnecessary harm being done to people."
UPDATE, 2:55 p.m.: Here's a copy of the letter from Rendell to Corbett.