SACRAMENTO — Even as their Assembly counterparts were reportedly moving close to a compromise with the Deukmejian Administration, Senate Democrats aired sharp differences over welfare reform Wednesday in a long, bitter hearing that featured acid-tongued exchanges between lawmakers and stories by welfare recipients about hardships and bureaucratic snafus.
Members of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee were also warned that, should the Legislature fail to act, a group of hard-line conservatives in Riverside County are drafting a ballot initiative that would require that most welfare clients either take jobs or automatically lose their benefits.
"Of course, they are going to put on an initiative," said Sen. John Garamendi (D-Walnut Grove). "We (the Legislature) have been working on this for five years now."
Thirteen bills, many of them including a mandatory work requirement similar to the one imposed under the three-year-old experimental "workfare" program in San Diego County, have been introduced in the Legislature this year.
On the Assembly side, lawmakers have agreed to keep all eight rival measures on hold while Democratic leaders try to work out a compromise with advisers to Gov. George Deukmejian and officials of the state Department of Social Services.
"We've had 15 to 16 hours of discussions without any overwhelming disagreements," said Assemblyman Art Agnos (D-San Francisco), who has been involved in the negotiations.
Despite deep divisions among Senate Democrats, Garamendi said he is also confident he can work out a compromise with state Sen. James W. Nielsen (R-Woodland), who is carrying the Administration's proposal in the Senate. Garamendi said he thinks he can win enough bipartisan support for a compromise measure to advance it beyond the Health and Human Services Committee. But committee Chairwoman Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles) and other liberals remain adamantly opposed to any reform that includes mandatory job search and work requirements and "punitive sanctions," which they say would penalize innocent children as well as adults who do not cooperate with workfare administrators.
Both Nielsen's and Garamendi's bills have those characteristics now.
"I'm not at all interested in punishing people who are already punished by their circumstances," Watson said. "It's crazy."
Wednesday's hearing was held just to discuss and debate the five welfare reform proposals in Senate. Watson said they would be voted on later.
Despite a defense of it by San Diego County Social Services Department Director Randall Bacon, the pilot workfare program came under heavy criticism by clients and welfare rights advocates during the hearing.
Also, legislative analyst William Hamm said a consultant's study, released earlier this year, shows that some welfare clients, particularly those in two-parent families, are often worse off after entering the workfare program.
The study generally had been interpreted as a glowing endorsement of the program, but Hamm said the report points out problems in some areas and is inconclusive in others.
Michelle Clark, an "A" student several months away from a degree in foreign language, testified that she is on the verge of being forced into the workfare program because her son is about to turn 6. Parents of children over 6 are required to look for work or accept a minimum-wage job under the San Diego program.
Clark said the requirement could keep her from earning a degree this year "and getting off the welfare rolls forever."
Another San Diegan, Maria Frazier, 34, testified that her welfare benefits are suspended because a bout with bronchitis and pneumonia kept her from taking a job assignment. Frazier said she and her 17-year-old daughter never lived in poverty until a job-related injury caused her to lose her construction job in 1983.
The two women were among dozens of welfare recipients and their supporters who testified during the hearing.
Breaking with normal procedures, Watson allowed several of them to speak even before senators themselves were allowed to testify about their own bills.
Several senators were visibly perturbed.
"The chairwoman has the prerogative to run her committee as she sees fit, but it's not normal," Garamendi said. "And, it's just not done."
Sen. Wadie Deddeh (D-Chula Vista) had to leave the hearing before getting an opportunity to present his bill. Deddeh's bill would extend the San Diego pilot project for two years. But it would make several modifications in the way sanctions are imposed.
The county's workfare experiment will end in July unless the Legislature extends it.
Watson's approach, copied from a program in effect in Massachusetts, would be an experimental program in one or two counties featuring job screening and assessment, training and educational opportunities, but no mandatory work requirement. Most welfare rights groups support Watson's approach.