Shaunna O’Connell, the Welfare Reform Queen behind the Curtain

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State Representative Shaunna O’Connell (R) from Taunton, Massachusetts

Behind the recently passed Welfare Reform Bill is someone you might not have heard of. Most people have not heard of her. If you work at the State House though, you might have heard of her.

Her name is Shaunna O’Connell. Shaunna came into office in 2011, after defeating her Democratic incumbent,  James. H. Fagan, an attorney who held the seat since 1993, by only 47 votes.

Her platform included:

-Strengthening our Economy
Three out of every four new jobs are created by the small business community. Being self-employed, I know cutting taxes and streamlining regulations can help create a better business environment climate that will encourage job growth.
-Control State Spending and Lower Tax Burden
Whether it is fighting to stop illegal immigrants from collecting state benefits or charging prisoners room and board, I will work for reforms to control state spending so we can protect local aid.
Taxpayers deserve to keep more of their hard-earned paychecks. That’s why I proudly signed the No New Taxes pledge. I support rolling back the sales tax increase that has hurt our economy.
– Improving Education
In order to be competitive in the ever-evolving workplace, children need a strong background in the basics. I strongly believe that our local teachers and school administrators know how best to educate our children, not Washington bureaucrats. The way to improve education is not just to throw money at the problem; it is to raise academic standards and to keep control at the local level.

In 2012, O’Connell decided to take up the platform that inmates must pay a fee of $5 while living in prisons, with Bristol Couty Sheriff Tom Hodgson. It was intended as a measure simply to be put in place to raise money for the state, and no mind was paid attention to it’s implications for those living in prison already facing sentences.

“If it means we have to get it with a referendum, we get it,” Hodgson said.

At a press conference Wednesday, Hodgson said he’s been trying to get the Legislature to OK the fee since Superior Court Judge Richard Moses struck it down in 2004.

“We’ve been losing millions,” Hodgson said, adding that the House’s failure to approve the fee, which appeared before them as a budget amendment was “unconscionable.”

Hodgson said if implemented in all the state’s counties, the fee could raise $50 million a year.

“How do you thumb your nose at $50 million,” he said.

At a time when the economy is forcing working people to cut back their own budgets, Hodgson said it is unrealistic to expect prisoners not to pay something toward the cost of their incarceration.

“You have school districts that have no money for sports,” Hodgson said. “Those kids are going to be hanging out somewhere.”

In 2010, the House had approved the measure.

Opponents of the plan say it shortsighted. Rep. David Flynn, D-Bridgewater, slammed the proposal, saying it was unfair to squeeze extra revenue from inmates.

“Why don’t we raise it to $100 a day, why not $1,000 a day? Therefore we can estimate much more money coming in,” he said.

Opponents say it will make it harder for prisoners to get a foothold in society when they are released and could drive them back to a life of crime.

Earlier this year, a judge ruled that the Bristol County sheriff did not have the right to impose the fees he’d been charging inmates.

In 2012, O’Connell went up for re-election. Because of redistricting, the 3rd Bristol District covered less of Taunton and included a portion of neighboring Easton. Challenging her this election was Taunton City Councilor Costa Hanlon, a Democrat who never ran for a state level seat before. Hanlon would concede to O’Connell for losing by a wide margin of 2,164 votes.

Following the Boston Marathon bombings and the reveal that the brothers and the family had once been using welfare, O’Connell has become the champion of welfare reform. Here is a video on her take of this information being revealed:

Following this, O’Connell along with some lawmakers proposed restoring the death penalty.

“What if he were not going to be federally charged?” Representative Shaunna O’Connell, a Taunton Republican, said at a morning press conference. “In Massachusetts, there would be no death penalty for him.”

O’Connell would later propose further EBT reforms.

“Taxpayers are demanding a reform of this system,” said O’Connell, R-Taunton, “There’s definitely a lot of support for it.”

Saying the current benefits system allows too much room for fraud, O’Connell filed the legislation with state Rep. Russell Holmes, a Boston Democrat.

And:

“We want to require the DTA to get at least two estimates of implementing photo ID on cards,” she said. “We want to eliminate cash access and implement a vendor payment system for rent and utilities.”

Currently, 85 percent of the $415 million worth of EBT transactions each year are cash withdrawals from ATMs, O’Connell said.

“I believe the system is open to abuse,” Holmes said. “When you go in and take out cash, no one knows how you spend that cash.”

O’Connell and Holmes were members of the special commission charged with studying potential EBT reforms, but said they were outvoted on money reforms by other members of the commission.

“We’re jointly filing this legislation because we are very disappointed with what came out of the EBT commission,” O’Connell said. “What they recommended doesn’t begin to address the problem.”

Following the release of the Audit on the Department of Transitional Assistance, O’Connell was thrilled at the idea she was correct about the welfare system.
“For three years, I have been saying that the Department of Transitional Assistance and the EBT card are broken,” O’Connell said. “This report proves all the points I have been making. It is time to end the excuses and pass tough reforms that will end the abuse, restore integrity to the program and protect taxpayer funds.”
And:

Among the legislative reforms being promoted by O’Connell are a requirement for Social Security numbers to collect benefits, the end of the so-called “self-declaration honor system,” a new 27-point verification check on all welfare applications, a requirement that DTA re-verify each recipient on a yearly basis, and a new requirement for pictures on all state-issued EBT cards by January 2014.

O’Connell said legislatures need to craft laws that would stop access to cash by requiring recipients to pay their utilities and rent online.

O’Connell also suggested that the state move all fraud investigation and enforcement responsibility out of DTA and into the Inspector General’s office. The Taunton Republican said the state should set up a special welfare fraud hotline for law enforcement, and that a new rule should suspend EBT benefits for anyone who loses their card more than three times in a year.

“Yesterday’s report shows that our welfare system is riddled with fraud,” O’Connell said. “When 9,800 recipients have had their cards replaced 10 or more times it should have been a red flag for DTA. Just within the last year 360,000 cards have been replaced. That’s 1000 per day. …We need these reforms today.”

O’Connell also criticized Gov. Deval Patrick for failing to implement previous reforms, which she worked on, that were passed by the House and the Senate on Beacon Hill.

“Unfortunately, Governor Patrick has refused to implement them which has resulted in more fraud occurring,” she said.

Despite her criticisms of Governor Patrick, she was also the subject of controversy over a photo she posted on her Facebook provoking racial tentions due to the nature of what the Confederate Flag represents in culture.

“It was just kids having innocent fun,” O’Connell said. “Nothing should be read into that at all.”

O’Connell, R-Taunton, posted the image to Facebook on Sunday, along with photographs of her children playing in the snow and a U.S. flag against a snowy backdrop.

The Confederate flag, regardless of the intent behind its display, can be a racially charged image for many Americans, said Michael Curry, president of the NAACP’s Boston chapter.

“Of course there’s a concern when an elected official posts an image of the Confederate flag,” Curry said. “I take the representative’s word that she was not trying to send a message. What it speaks to, I think, is a lack of awareness … It is discouraging to know there are still folks who, when they see that image, think nothing of it and would post it.”

The state lawmaker said her children built and decorated the snowman using items that were leftover from a clothing drive. The snowman, posted with the caption “Just a little R & R …”, also had sunglasses, sandals and a beach towel.

“We had been collecting clothes from different family friends,” she said. “My pastor had been going down to New York for the Hurricane Sandy victims, and there was a bunch of leftover stuff we had to get rid of.”

The bathing suit top, she said, was among those articles.

“It was innocently done,” O’Connell said. “I really hope my kids aren’t dragged into anything.”

She added that no one had posted negative Facebook comments about the photograph.

Curry said that in his opinion, it is the adult’s responsibility to be aware of potentially offensive symbols and avoid displaying them. He said he hoped the matter could inspire a “teachable moment” about the controversial history of Confederate symbols.

“We are in midst of Black History Month, which I think adds a bit of a sting to an image like this,” Curry said.

The Confederate flag has long been the subject of controversy, with supporters saying it represents southern heritage, while many opponents associate it with the legacy of slavery. In popular culture, the emblem is sometimes used by country and Southern rock musical acts. It also appears in the state flag of Mississippi and is displayed on the grounds of the South Carolina State House. The flag is also, however, used by some white supremacist organizations.

“I think over the course of the last few years, people have come to realize the Confederate flag, to many Americans of African descent, symbolizes a very troubling period in American history,” Curry said. “Many have chosen with good reason not to present the Confederate flag in any form.”

O’Connell would later pay $800 to see information relating to a lead that some welfare accounts were high.

“It’s even worse than I thought it was going to be, what we’ve seen at this point,” O’Connell said, adding she needs more time to dig deeper into the numbers. “Once again, this is the tip of the 
iceberg.”

Less than two hours after 
delivering the data to 
O’Connell’s office, officials at the Department of Transitional 
Assistance announced new rules to curb high balances. However, those officials denied the timing of the new initiatives was meant to blunt outrage over these 
bloated EBT balances.

For those receiving cash assistance from the state, officials will now close EBT accounts exceeding a $2,500 balance and expunge all accounts not used for 90 days. Officials said they also will contact all those with more than $1,500 on EBT cards, asking them to call DTA to explain their cash kitty.

As a federally administered program, there is no limit to how high SNAP accounts can soar. But DTA officials plan to deactivate any account not used after six months and then erase the balances after 12 months of no use. When balances reach $5,000, only then will caseworkers start a case review.

DTA Commissioner Stacey Monahan refused a Herald 
request for an interview last night but said in a statement that high balances are “inconsistent with the department’s goal of helping vulnerable individuals meet their most basic and immediate needs, and that’s why we are taking this action.”

O’Connell scoffed at the welfare agency’s new rules, calling them “one sorry excuse” for 
reform.

“If you’re letting people accumulate thousands of dollars,” she said, “that flies in the face of any kind of genuine concern about fraud and any actual real reform.”

Indeed, letting welfare users accumulate funds they qualify for and have a right to use (or not use) at their own discretion, hardly seems like an act of fraud. It’s called saving, a form of responsible behavior that is just money management. One might attest that Shaunna herself is aware of what money management is when it comes to her own personal funds.
O’Connell is also responsible with creating the first bill in the State House that happens to be a Voter ID Law.

SECTION 1. Section 75 of chapter 54 of the General Laws, as appearing in the 2010 Official Edition, is hereby amended, by adding at the end thereof the following language:-

Any election officer who in any way fails to follow the procedures and guidelines enumerated by this chapter or the election day procedures and regulations provided by the Secretary of State shall be subject to a written citation for the first recorded offense, and shall be relieved of duties for any subsequent offense.

SECTION 2. Subsection (c) of section 76C of chapter 54 of the General Laws, as appearing in the 2010 Official Edition, is hereby amended by striking out the words, “requested to present identification when completing a provisional ballot. Failure to present identification shall not prevent the voter from completing a provisional ballot.” and inserting in place thereof the following—required to present valid, photo identification when completing a provisional ballot. Failure to present identification either immediately or under the provisions of Section 4, subsection 1 shall cause such provisional ballot to be discarded.

SECTION 3. Section 76C of chapter 54 of the General Laws, as appearing in the 2010 Official Edition, is herby amended by adding the following language at the end of subsection (c):

“Valid photo identification” shall mean a document that:

(1) shows the name of the individual to whom the document was issued, and the name conforms to the name of the individual’s voter registration record;

(2) shows a photograph of the individual to whom the document was issued;

(3) includes an expiration date, and the document is not expired or expired after the date of the most recent general election; and

(4) was issued by the commonwealth of Massachusetts or the government of the United States.

(5) includes the individual’s current address within the district for which they are voting.

(2) (a) A person seeking to vote that does not provide sufficient valid photo identification as defined in subsection (a) of this section may be challenged under section 85 of this chapter.

SECTION 4. Section 76C of chapter 54 of the General Laws, as so appearing, is hereby amended, by adding after subsection (k) the following new subsection:–

(l) A voter who fails to provide valid photo identification as defined under section 76C and casts a provisional ballot shall be required to provide such identification in person to the city or town clerk, or elections board or commission, of the municipality in which they reside, within 8 business days from the date of the election in which the provisional ballot was cast. A voter who fails to provide such identification in the time specified shall forfeit that vote, and that provisional ballot shall be discarded.

In closing, it seems likely she will continue to challenge the welfare system as something we shouldn’t have in Massachusetts. With our Democratic Majority, it seems unlikely she will get very far in all of her endeavors. Regardless, she is one to pay attention to given the alarming manner and far-right legislation she has proposed.

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2 thoughts on “Shaunna O’Connell, the Welfare Reform Queen behind the Curtain

  1. My question is: does the Taunton-area Democratic party have a plan to take her on in 2014? I know it’s early, but I’ll come down from Plymouth and work hard for whoever runs against her. I can’t begrudge a Republican forwarding reform packages, but the blatant xenophobia & poor-person hysteria she broadcasts on the Howie Carr show regularly is beyond the pale.

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