ST. PAUL -- A Ramsey County District judge on Friday lifted her order that stopped the state from implementing welfare changes that will reduce the monthly aid checks for some recipients.
Judge Judith Tilsen was scheduled to hear arguments on Monday over whether to extend the restraining order she issued on June 30, the day before the new state budget took effect. A group of welfare recipients had sued to stop changes adopted by the Legislature, which Tilsen held up until the state received federal permission to carry them out.
That consent came Thursday in a letter from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the food-stamp program.
Tilsen's one-page ruling Friday came in response to a state Department of Human Services request. The agency needed to know by Monday whether the judge found the waiver sufficient. The department is required to give 10 days notice to recipients when benefits are adjusted, meaning a tight deadline for enacting the changes in August.
The August welfare checks will be smaller for recipients who have household members receiving federal disability checks, said Chuck Johnson, the state official in charge of the welfare program.
State benefits will be cut by up to $125 for each family member receiving Social Security payments for disabilities, affecting more than 7,000 families on the public assistance rolls.
The move was expected to save $22 million in program costs over the next two years, although the one-month delay in implementing it has lowered that amount by $1 million.
Tilsen must still decide whether the state is allowed to recoup money paid out in July, when her restraining order was in place.
Johnson said the state is seeking the right to collect what it views as overpayments. "That is the course that we think is correct and consistent with the law," he said.
The next scheduled hearing in the lawsuit, filed by Legal Aid on behalf of welfare recipients, is Aug. 14.
Welfare-rights activist Trishalla Bell, of Minneapolis, said she was disappointed by Friday's ruling. "People are still going to become homeless over this," she said. "We are going to keep fighting."
Ralonda Mason, the attorney who argued the case for Legal Aid, didn't immediately return a call for comment.
Congress revised the welfare program in 1996 to allow states to design their own plans, although the federal government maintained an oversight role. The program implemented here was called the Minnesota Family Investment Program. MFIP was unique in that it combined food stamp and cash benefits in welfare payments.
The Legislature approved changes to the program as part of a budget-balancing plan. But advocates of welfare recipients cried foul because the state wasn't granted a federal waiver before implementing the change.
The Agriculture Department said in its letter that the changes are in line with federal food-stamp guidelines.
Tilsen's decision also frees the state to go forward with other welfare changes.
Beginning in September, the state intends to count some federal housing subsidies as income when figuring benefits, a change that would touch about 12,000 families. The change will immediately affect new enrollees, Johnson said.
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