Ruling that the governor has broad authority to reduce state budget deficits, the Maryland Court of Appeals yesterday upheld the constitutionality of cuts in welfare and medical assistance programs ordered last year by Gov. William Donald Schaefer.
The state's highest court said the Maryland Constitution gave the governor broad authority over budgetary matters.
The court said that to reduce deficits, a 1939 law gave Maryland's chief executive specific power to reduce appropriations by as much as 25 percent in any program, except public schools, the legislature, the judiciary, and funds for interest payments and to retire the state debt.
"The budget system, as it has evolved in Maryland, imposes the power over and the responsibility for the fiscal affairs of the state primarily in the governor," said the opinion, written by Judge John C. Eldridge.
Judge Eldridge wrote that the state's budget process does not improperly delegate legislative power to the governor, as alleged by plaintiffs who filed suit to restore the cuts.
"The governor has a preeminent constitutional role with respect to appropriations," he wrote.
Last year, with the state facing a $450 million deficit, Mr. Schaefer ordered $70 million cut from Aid to Families with Dependent Children, General Public Assistance and medical insurance for disabled indigents.
The cuts were approved Sept. 30 by the Board of Public Works whose members are the governor, the state comptroller and the state treasurer.
Lawyers for six plaintiffs affected by the cuts brought suit, arguing that the statute violated the constitutional principle of separation of powers by allowing the governor to usurp the legislature's role in shaping the budget. In December, the Baltimore Circuit Court ruled against the plaintiffs and their lawyers filed an appeal.
Page W. Boinest, a spokeswoman for Mr. Schaefer, said the ruling affirmed the governor's belief that he had the power to make the cuts.
"In the future, it means the governor has the authority to act in the way he thinks is necessary to make cuts to bring the budget into balance," Ms. Boinest said.
But J. Peter Sabonis, a lawyer with the Homeless Persons Representation Project, said the ruling will continue to hurt poor people who were affected by the cuts.
"What it means is that for roughly 32,000 indigent people, probably 90 percent of them with disabilities . . . they're going to be without medical care and their conditions will continue to deteriorate," Mr. Sabonis said.
As a result, he said, Marylanders will pay a "hidden tax" -- higher health insurance premiums and hospital costs -- for medical care for the poor.
Mr. Sabonis, who argued against the cuts before the Court of Appeals, said that although state officials are legally required to pass a balanced budget, the cuts were unnecessary because there is no requirement to end the year with a balanced budget.