ANNAPOLIS -- The Schaefer administration has backed off its decision to cap the state-funded program that provides a safety net for the disabled poor.
At the request of Charles L. Benton Jr., secretary of budget and fiscal planning, members of a legislative oversight committee agreed to postpone consideration of cuts in this year's state-funded general public assistance program for at least two weeks.
That delay will give administration officials and legislative leaders time to find alternative budget cuts to offset the program's projected $10 million deficit, said Delegate Charles J. Ryan Jr., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, who made the request with Mr. Benton.
"I don't want this program revisited," the Pringe George's Democrat said after his appearance before the Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review. "We'll find something else to cut."
Administration officials had requested a cap in the program last month to reduce the financial demands of a growing caseload. In addition, a disabling illness would have had to last at least six months instead of the previous 30 days for a person to qualify for benefits, under the cost-cutting proposal.
A coalition of welfare advocates had opposed the move, and AELR committee members said they were deluged with postcards, letters and phone calls of protest. The public assistance program pays $205 a month to people who have a physical or mental problem that prevents them from working.
For most recipients, that money -- and $105 a month in food stamps -- is all they have to live on, said Lynda Meade of Associated Catholic Charities. "That translates to about $10 a day," she said. "This is a program that must absolutely be held harmless."
Delegate Ryan said Gov. William Donald Schaefer's proposed budgetfor next year already includes about 50 percent more money for the public assistance program, enough to accommodate an expected 8,000 more cases. Such a large increase in recipients may be overly generous, Mr. Ryan said. "At least we hope it's overstated."
Nevertheless, officials said they hope to trim the public assistance rolls by finding other programs, such as Supplemental Security Income, which can provide alternative help for the poor.
The Schaefer administration's decision to postpone, and likely abstain from, changes in the public assistance program is the latest in a series of flip-flops over budget cuts involving social service programs. Last year, Governor Schaefer faced public protests over cuts in programs that pay for kidney dialysis, off-set prescription drug costs and provide counseling to juvenile delinquents. He eventually restored their funding.
"They seem to be backing away from everything all at once," said Delegate Howard P. Rawlings, D-Baltimore.
"I suspect these are very difficult decisions for the governor," he said.