Md. legislators vow to avert welfare cut


ANNAPOLIS -- Angered by the Schaefer administration's decision to cut welfare and blame the General Assembly for not raising taxes, legislative leaders vowed yesterday to find the needed funds elsewhere in the state budget.

"This disturbing executive policy attempts to balance the budget on the backs of the poor," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's. "The legislature in my 21 years has never cut the budget for poor people, and hopefully it never will. It's outrageous."

The cuts announced Monday by Human Resources Secretary Carolyn W. Colvin would roll back two welfare programs to their fiscal 1990 benefit levels, reducing General Public Assistance by 5 percent and Aid to Families with Dependent Children by 2.5 percent, beginning April 1.

Public assistance provides money for poor people with a disability. AFDC supports poor families, chiefly single parents who are not able to support their children.

For an average family of three, the AFDC cut would reduce their monthly payment from $406 to $396, but would allow them qualify for $3 more each month in food stamps. The same size family would receive $315 a month from public assistance instead of the current $331 but would qualify for $5 more in food stamps.

In a letter to be sent to welfare recipients, Secretary Colvin blames the reductions on the legislature's failure to raise taxes and includes the comment: "We hope that the legislature will soon provide the money to increase your grant."

Paul E. Schurick, a spokesman for Gov. William Donald Schaefer, confirmed yesterday that the taxes to which Ms. Colvin alludes are those contained in the administration's proposed $800 million Linowes tax package, which the legislature rejected last week.

Cutting such a politically sensitive program as AFDC and then blaming it on the General Assembly struck a particularly harsh note for many lawmakers. Senate Minority Leader John A. Cade, R-Anne Arundel, called the letter "misleading" and "an outright lie."

"Basically, we all recognize the game the governor is playing, and that is to create pressure on this body to raise taxes," Senator Cade said in a speech on the Senate floor. "What's really an outrage is what he has done to the poor people of this state to achieve his objectives."

The cuts are expected to save the state $1.7 million and partially offset an anticipated $9 million shortfall in the Department of Human Resources caused by fast-growing enrollment in welfare programs.

RTC A spokeswoman for the American Public Welfare Association, a Washington-based, non-profit bipartisan organization, said yesterday that if the measure were passed, Maryland would become the first state in the nation to actually reduce welfare benefits this year.

"Nobody else around the country has lowered the ax on AFDC that we're aware of," said Kathy Patterson, the organization's spokeswoman.

The Schaefer administration will not require legislative approval to move forward with the reductions. They are in lieu of an earlier administration proposal -- withdrawn in the face of legislative opposition -- to cap the general public assistance program and toughen eligibility standards.

Senate Budget and Taxation Committee Chairman Laurence Levitan, D-Montgomery, said he was particularly angry that the Schaefer administration had not sought the legislature's help in finding money to avoid the cuts.

"There's a whole variety of things" the legislature could do instead, Senator Levitan said. "The bottom line is, we could probably find the money if we were asked, but we weren't. It was a fait accompli."

House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, said one option might be for the legislature to reduce the budget for the Department of Economic and Employment Development, a pet spending area for Governor Schaefer.

"It's an ideal area," Mr. Mitchell said. "We can actually hold off for a few months in economic development to make sure people can survive and have enough food to eat."

Welfare advocates have protested the cut, pointing out that spending for GPA and AFDC has not kept pace with inflation in recent years and that the rollback will be disastrous for families living on the edge.

"The amount they receive is something no one believes people can live on anyway," said Susan Leviton, president of Advocates for Children and Youth. "To use them in a political squabble is the worst. They are voiceless. They have the least power."

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