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Wilson Agrees to Seek Food Stamp Reprieve

Aid: All counties will be eligible, not just those with high joblessness. Officials say time is needed to create workfare.


SACRAMENTO — Responding to a plea from California counties, Gov. Pete Wilson reversed an earlier position and agreed Wednesday to seek federal permission to save food stamp benefits for thousands of single adults who would lose them this month.

The extensions sought by Wilson would last six months and would affect only those counties that choose to accept a waiver. The governor also is seeking waivers for Indian reservations with high unemployment.

The decision represented a softening of an earlier, hard-line position taken by Wilson, who initially agreed only to exempt from the cuts 26 counties that had high unemployment. The governor's concession came as the executive branch and the Legislature began what is expected to be months of fractious debate over the final shape of the state's welfare reform plan.

A spokesman for Wilson confirmed that the governor was alerting lawmakers of his decision to intercede on behalf of hard-pressed counties that were being forced to cut from the food-stamp rolls all childless, able-bodied single adults who had failed to find jobs within three months. Up to 43,000 recipients could be affected by Wilson's action.

Counties throughout the state had complained that they were being required to cut people off food stamps before officials had time to create community service jobs that would have allowed the recipients to go to work and continue receiving food assistance.

"The governor has heard the concerns of the counties," said Wilson Press Secretary Sean Walsh, "and has agreed to submit an application for a waiver on their behalf."

The food stamp cuts were mandated by federal welfare reform legislation signed into law in August. The new law allowed recipients to continue receiving stamps either if they worked at least 20 hours a week in private sector jobs or if they participated in workfare, a program sponsored by local governments that provides low-skill jobs for people on welfare.

The new federal law also allowed governors to apply for exemptions for any areas in their state where unemployment exceeded 10% or where there was a shortage of jobs.

Unlike governors in 31 other states, Wilson chose to interpret that provision of the new law conservatively and sought exemptions only for counties with high unemployment.

Walsh said Wilson will now seek the six-month waiver for any county requesting it.

"We feel that request is reasonable," he said.

At the same time, he said the governor also would seek waivers for Indian reservations that have high unemployment and are geographically isolated.

A lobbyist for several tribes said unemployment on many reservations is above 30% and transportation off the reservation is virtually nonexistent.

The governor's decision came only a few days before lawmakers planned to consider a resolution that formally urged him to expand the waiver requests beyond the initial 26 counties.

The resolution, authored by Assembly Human Services Committee Chairwoman Dion Aroner (D-Berkeley) and Sen. Cathie Wright (R-Simi Valley), said Wilson had failed to consider the fact that in many counties there was a severe shortage of private sector jobs.

"We're very pleased that the governor responded to the resolution in the way that he did," Aroner said Wednesday. "This will ensure that food stamp recipients can continue to receive assistance while counties work toward establishing workfare positions."

In Los Angeles, county Welfare Director Lynn Bayer said the governor's change in position could have "a significant impact on many counties" that do not have a workfare program and would have been cutting off food stamps, starting this month.

She said Los Angeles had planned to avoid the cuts by expanding its current workfare program to include about 10,000 food stamp recipients. "In L.A. County, no one was going to lose food stamps," she said.

Bayer said a number of counties want to start a workfare program modeled after Los Angeles County's, and the six-month extension would give them time to develop such a program.

Margaret Pena, a lobbyist for the California State Assn. of Counties, said the governor's decision would ease concerns that the counties which initially received exemptions would become magnets for poor people from counties which did not receive a waiver.

She said she expected that most counties would seek the exemptions, particularly those where seasonal employment is common and jobs are scarce.

Bruce Wagstaff, deputy director of the state Department of Social Services, said the governor had been swayed by the counties' complaints that they needed more time to tell people what to do to avoid the cuts and more time to develop community service jobs.

He said he had not talked yet to federal officials about the decision to expand the exemption request but added that "we are hopeful that they will respond positively."

Times staff writer Jeffrey L. Rabin contributed to this story.

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