JEFFERSON CITY - As Democrats in the Missouri House watched party unity unravel, the top Democratic leader in the Senate used the opening of the 1996 session to espouse a theme generally associated with conservative Republicans.
In his opening day address to the Missouri Senate Wednesday, Senate President Pro Tem Jim Mathewson, D-Sedalia, called for legislation that would deny welfare to able-bodied recipients who refuse to work.
Under Mathewson's bill, welfare benefits could be cut if an able-bodied recipient refused to accept a job.
Mathewson cited welfare pilot program he started in Pettis County last August.
The Welfare to Work Initiative refers welfare applicants to employers who have job openings. Under the program, those who don't show up for job interviews or turn down job offers, are cut from assistance for 60 days.
Of the 1,041 referrals in counties with the program, 54 percent are no longer on welfare, Mathewson said. Of those no longer receiving assistance, 170 found work, while 396 were cut off.
Mathewson, who has proposed a bill that would extend the policy across the state, brought several of the program's success stories to the Senate session, including Vinny Freeman, of Sedalia.
Freeman said he was receiving food stamps when the state referred him to Tyson Foods. He went in for an interview and within two days he began working full time for the company, Freeman said in an interview after the Senate session.
"The program is fair and it works pretty well," Freeman said.
But some legislators have questioned the program's effectiveness in other areas of the state.
"It's worked well in the counties where they've implemented it, where they had major employers and I think it's a very worthwhile program," said Sen. Joe Moseley, D-Columbia.
Because the program requires major employers with job openings in the area, Moseley said he is not sure the program would work everywhere in the state.
For instance, Sen. J. B. Banks, D-St. Louis, questioned the program's effectiveness in his urban district.
"This is a pilot program in [Mathewson's] district. Tyson's over there. I don't have a situation like that in St. Louis," Banks said. "I don't think the same program, handled the same way as in Sedalia, would work in St. Louis until we find willing folks who need employees."
Mathewson said the solution to the problem in St. Louis is to transport city residents who are unemployed but willing to work into the county, where there are more jobs available.
But Banks also questioned the pilot program's apparent success.
"Why did they refuse the job they were offered? Was it the amount of money offered? Was it because of Medicaid? There's a bottom line as to why they chose not to take the job offer and I want to know what it is," Banks said.
Senate Republican Leader Franc Flotron, R-St.Louis County, said he agreed with much of Mathewson's speech, but believes the legislature should go further.
"What Jim is talking about is fine. But the people of this country want, demand and deserve major changes in welfare," Flotron said. "I'm not sure this is that big of a change. Is it a solution, or is it just tinkering with the surface?"
Flotron said he would like to see pilot programs which would try to phase out all support services, not just welfare. A big problem with Mathewson's proposal is that it doesn't consider persons who would rather turn down a job and be kicked off welfare than lose their Medicaid card, he said.
"The problem is people don't have a financial incentive to take the first step," Flotron said. "Until you have that financial incentive to leave the welfare nest, we're not solving the problem."
Mathewson said companies hiring these persons often offer health coverage, taking the place of their Medicaid assistance.