Welfare checks will be reduced next month for the first time in state history, and the reductions may be only the first round for Maryland's 98,000 public-assistance cases.
Maryland Secretary of Human Resources Carolyn Colvin announced yesterday that Aid to Families with Dependent Children and General Public Assistance grants would be rolled back to their 1990 levels, effective April 1, saving $1.5 million.
The cuts will amount to a net reduction of less than $10 a month for the average recipient and will affect 75,000 AFDC cases and 23,000 in the state-funded GPA program for the temporarily disabled.
Colvin blamed the cuts on Maryland's budget problems and on increases in the welfare caseload. She suggested that state lawmakers could avoid these and further cuts by raising taxes.
The cuts predictably drew cries of outrage from lawmakers, who have so far resisted calls from Gov. William Donald Schaefer to approve any major tax increases this year.
Legislators complained about the cuts on the Senate floor and accused the Schaefer administration of telling "an outright lie" in explaining why the reductions were made.
"We recognize the game the governor's playing," said Sen. John A. Cade, R-Anne Arundel, who accused Schaefer of a ploy to pressure the General Assembly into passing new taxes.
"I think it's awful," said House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr, D-Eastern Shore. "We've gone out of our way to avoid these kind of cuts. It's terribly unnecessary at this time."
Del. Nancy Kopp, D-Montgomery, chairman of a budget subcommittee, called the cuts "unconscionable" and suggested that Schaefer was more interested in protecting funds set aside to build a new football stadium than in protecting welfare grants.
Under the cuts, the average family of three on AFDC would receive $10 less in their monthly check of $406, but would receive $3 more in food stamps, a federal program to which the state does not contribute. A disabled adult on GPA would see the grant drop from $205 to $195, but also would pick up an additional $3 in food stamps.
And, unless new funds are found, the grants will, at best, stay at those levels when the new fiscal year starts July 1, Colvin said.
Meanwhile, the Department of Human Resources still needs to reduce its budget by an additional $7.5 million and is considering another cut in welfare, as well as in programs serving foster children, the homeless and the elderly.
"This is not something the governor was anxious to approve," said Colvin, who contended there was no political agenda underlying the unusual announcement. Not only did DHR call a special news conference to publicize the cuts, but it also invited advocates from various non-profit agencies that work with the poor.
"We're at the point now where any further cuts are going to have a negative impact," Colvin said, referring to how more cuts could affect homeless services and interfere with Baltimore's efforts to meet court-ordered standards on foster care.
"Time is running very, very short," said Charles L. Benton Jr., state secretary of budget and fiscal planning, who joined Colvin for the announcement. Benton said DHR could run out of money in mid-June.
DHR is running a $33 million deficit this year, in part because the state's welfare rolls have been increasing steadily for 18 months, exceeding budget projections. The 1992 budget includes a $24 million allocation to make up part of the deficit. DHR must find the additional $9 million, Colvin said.
Asked if the cuts were her way of pressuring legislators to consider new taxes, Colvin said she had made her position clear earlier this year. "I don't want to suggest the legislature has not been supportive of our budget," she said. "They have. [But] they have not gone far enough."
After the briefing, advocates were skeptical about the need for the cuts and about the reason for announcing them with such fanfare.
"It seems like there's this line drawn in the sand -- the executive branch and the legislature are using the poor to advocate or not advocate for a tax increase," said Darold Johnson, lobbyist for the Maryland Food Committee. "They always project a worst-case scenario."
Norma Pinette, director of Action for the Homeless Inc., said short-term solutions to budget problems will result in long-term problems -- more families without shelter, disabled adults without services. She also said new taxes remain an option.
The welfare cuts represent Colvin's second proposal for
attacking her department's deficit. A month ago, she proposed changing GPA's eligibility requirements and capping the number participants, actions she estimated would have saved $4 million to $5 million. However, Colvin could not get legislative approval for that plan.
Cutting grants does not require legislative approval because such action does not involve rewriting eligibility standards.