Lawmaker: Welfare fraud punishment should 'fit the crime'

Feb. 14—HARRISBURG — A bill proposing to ease the penalty grading of welfare fraud crimes advanced out of the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.

The 14-11 vote split along party lines with all Democrats in favor and all Republicans opposed.

House Bill 1806 from state Rep. La'Tasha Mayes, D-Allegheny, proposes to restore more lenient grading of welfare fraud crimes.

State lawmakers tightened the grading among multiple reforms passed in a 2018 law. As it stands, anyone found to fraudulently receive $1,000 or more in public assistance or food stamps can be charged with a first-degree felony. The fraudulent receipt of benefits below that threshold is a misdemeanor crime of the first degree.

Mayes' bill would increase the top-end threshold to $3,000 for a first-degree felony. The theft of benefits from $1,500 to $2,999 would be a first-degree misdemeanor; $1,000 to $1,499, second-degree misdemeanor; $999 or less, third-degree misdemeanor.

These levels were in place until the legislative change six years ago approved under a Republican majority legislature and signed by former Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat.

"My bill ensures that the legal consequence fits the crime," Mayes said.

Separately, recipients convicted of welfare fraud are also subject to program suspension including permanent suspension upon the third offense.

Mayes wrote in a co-sponsorship memo — points that she reiterated at the committee meeting — that by restoring the prior thresholds, the Office of State Inspector General could pursue more cases of fraud at the lowest court level, magisterial district justice, and improve both the efficiency of prosecution and the likelihood of recovering stolen public assistance.

In 2022-23, the Office of Inspector General filed 618 fraud complaints in court totaling $2.9 million in stolen benefits and $1.9 million in savings through related program disqualification, the agency's latest annual report shows.

Another 74 administrative cases resulting in program disqualification were completed totaling $181,428 in restitution and savings of $176,370 in disqualified future benefits.

The agency estimates a total of $45.8 million was saved through fraud prevention activities by investigating 20,010 benefits applications.

State Rep. Paul Schemel, R-Franklin, said there is a low percentage of constituents in his district who are on welfare. He said constituents view it as a potential safety net when necessary and would be offended to see penalties lessened for the theft of their tax dollars.

"Downgrading the offense of theft from the very system that's there to support the poorest of the poor in the commonwealth downgrades the integrity of the system itself," he said.

Mayes said that both the Shapiro administration and the Office of Inspector General support the proposal.

"I think this direction will allow the inspector general to follow through on what we all want, to address welfare fraud," Rep. Tim Briggs, D-Montgomery, committee chair, said.