Md. welfare rolls at 10-year high Situation called 'desperate'; state in deficit crunch


ANNAPOLIS -- The number of Marylanders on welfare has soared to the highest level in a decade "with no end in sight," state welfare officials said yesterday, adding that their understaffed offices are "bursting at the seams."

"The situation is becoming desperate," said Human Resources Secretary Carolyn W. Colvin, who warned that her department expects more than 216,000 people to be on the state's main public assistance program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, by next month. That would be the highest level since 1981, when welfare eligibility rules were tightened significantly under the Reagan administration.

Bad as it is, the news is only a small part of a broader, increasingly dismal economic outlook for a state that faces a deficit in the current budget year that already is estimated as high as $450 million.

Early next week, Gov. William Donald Schaefer is expected to unveil his plan for dealing with the deficit, and while his aides refuse to provide details, they uniformly predict it will not be a pretty sight.

State Treasurer Lucille Maurer, one of the three members of the Board of Public Works, predicted: "Because of the magnitude of the cut, whatever it is is going to be disastrous. The way I see it, there are no options but bad options."

The governor's plan is expected to include broad reductions in ++ state spending, especially in state aid to local governments and in several large agencies -- health, human resources, higher education and prisons -- that were somewhat shielded from the brunt of major cutbacks over the past year.

Some state programs will surely be terminated, and an undisclosed number of state employees may lose their jobs, primarily because their agencies have already cut supplies, equipment or other non-personnel spending, various administration officials acknowledge.

William S. Ratchford II, the General Assembly's chief budget adviser, has given lawmakers his best guess of where the administration is likely to make its cuts.

The list includes an estimated $150 million reduction in spending by various agencies; withholding nearly $116 million more from local governments; almost $29 million earmarked for community colleges and another $11 million from local health departments.

Beyond that, said House Appropriations Chairman Charles J. Ryan Jr., D-Prince George's, the list is far less certain. Among the possibilities are eliminating the General Public Assistance program (a $40 million savings), slashing optional Medicaid coverages for the poor by $60 million (for HMOs, prescription drugs and day care) and trimming $10 million to $16 million from private colleges or other private entities the state traditionally helps.

But Governor Schaefer is expected to refrain from calling for tax increases, preferring instead to let "the pain" of the budget cuts and layoffs build the case for more taxes among otherwise reluctant county officials, special-interest groups and lawmakers.

Nearly half of the projected $450 million deficit is attributed to a sharp drop in tax revenues.

Administration officials, however, make no secret of the fact that they hope cutbacks will build pressure on House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, to relent in his opposition to a proposal by the Senate's budget committee chairman to call the General Assembly into special session in November solely to raise taxes. Mr. Mitchell, aware of the strategy, says he will not budge.

Officials in some state agencies complain privately -- they decline toallow their names to be used -- that the administration is looking for "shock value," attempting to build the "body count" by encouraging layoffs and ignoring other alternatives such as furloughs that might save money but preserve jobs.

Administration officials readily concede the governor's plan is likely to have "shock value," but insist it is not calculated to have that effect politically. Rather, they say, there is no other way of reducing spending by so large an amount without cutting deeply into many programs that people want.

"Yes, we're going to get criticized [for cutting] some really grisly stuff in the health and human services area," said Frederick W. Puddester, the governor's deputy budget secretary. "But you can't get [the necessary reductions] by taking these little things here and there."

Without authority to raise taxes unilaterally, and faced with a variety of limitations on what can be cut and by how much, Mr. Schaefer is expected to ask the Board of Public Works to implement his plan at its meeting Wednesday. Many of the reductions could take effect Nov. 1, if not sooner.

From time to time, Human Resources officials have said they believed many new welfare recipients were victims of the sagging economy -- unemployed workers who had never applied for assistance before and never expected to need it.

Agency officials decided to make that point again yesterday "because we think the public needs to know about this," said Helen Szablya, a department spokeswoman.

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