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Md. welfare reform may be delayed Lawmakers urging Glendening to wait for federal changes; All agree alterations needed; But key legislators are cautioning against early cuts

While many states are rushing to reshape their welfare systems, Gov. Parris N. Glendening's ambitious reform plan could be scaled back sharply in the Maryland General Assembly.

Under pressure to prepare for a new federal law and major reductions in funding, Mr. Glendening asked the legislature to approve a five-year, lifetime limit on eligibility for cash payments, and a requirement that current recipients begin to seek work within two years.

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The bill proposes a system in which temporary cash relief and job placement services would be offered to head off long-term reliance on the public purse.

Reformers in the legislature, the welfare bureaucracy and advocates agree that the state should find creative solutions to the current program, which critics call a destructive, impersonal system of check-writing.

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But key legislators worry about the impact of reduced benefits and some are asking why Maryland should slash its already-low payments before Washington forces it to. Similarly, county officials have resisted the plan, fear- ing they will be asked to take up the financial slack left by changes at the state and federal levels.

"My preference is that we don't do anything until we hear with some certainty what the federal government is doing," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings, the Baltimore Democrat who is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee in Annapolis.

At a recent hearing before Mr. Rawlings' committee, the Glendening bill was opposed by officials of the Maryland Association of Counties, which surprised administration officials by saying they were not even interested in being briefed on the plan.

Opposition also came from Baltimore, home to half the state's 80,000 welfare families, and from Prince George's County, which has about 11,000 welfare families.

So, Mr. Glendening's welfare department has agreed to eliminate one of the plan's major features: the five-year limit on eligibility. The revised bill would say that no limits would be set until and unless the federal government issues its long-awaited new rules.

In addition, the department has prepared amendments stating more clearly that the state would remain responsible for the system's costs.

"The smart states are moving ahead," said Lynda Fox, deputy director of the Department of Human Resources, Maryland's welfare agency. "We believe it's in the best interests of poor families in Maryland that we get ahead of the curve."

About 40 states have begun a wide array of reforms after persuading the Clinton administration to waive federal regulations. Some national observers of these developments suggest that the waiver process, which allows states to tailor plans to their own circumstances, could be the best approach to effective reform.

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Mr. Glendening's bill also would:

* Require current recipients to find a job within two years or

accept public service employment.

* Limit payments for a family, permitting only vouchers for child-related expenses not additional cash for children born after a family went on welfare. This provision is a restatement of a

policy change already approved by the legislature last year.

* Avoid the current "one size fits all" approach by granting new flexibility to local welfare departments.

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Recipients might continue to receive assistance and health care coverage even after they found work to ease the transition to self-sufficiency. Families in which both parents were in the home could be assisted, an acknowledgment that the current system sometimes forces family breakup by denying aid when the father is present. A family also could own a car, often prohibited now.

* Establish matching systems with private employers to identify recipients who take jobs without reporting their income to welfare officials. Such systems also could help identify parents who fall behind on child support payments.

Ms. Fox drew an excited response last week from Democratic Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell of Baltimore County, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, when she said during a hearing that Massachusetts saved $40 million by matching the names of welfare recipients with reports filed by employers.

A savings of that magnitude, the senator said, would help pay for the welfare-to-work program.

But critics of the rush to reform worry that Maryland will abandon its commitment to providing child care and other services needed by families moving into the work force.

"What we seem to have here is a budget-driven bill in search of a policy justification," said Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat and chairman of a subcommittee that oversees welfare issues. He, too, prefers to delay more change in Maryland until Washington acts.

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Opponents of the bill fear Maryland will further reduce its welfare payments because it will get less from Washington under a new system of federal block grants.

Since 1991, when payments to a family of three in Maryland peaked at $406 a month, benefits have dropped by $33 to $373. That figure represents 61 percent of the money state officials say is needed for a "minimum living level."

The urgency to prepare may have eased in recent weeks, according to Steven Savner, an official of the Center for Law and Social Policy in Washington.

President Clinton and his likely opponent, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, a Kansas Republican, may or may not want a bill passed, he said. Mr. Dole might allow reform efforts to languish in Congress and then argue that his opponent failed to keep a campaign promise to "change welfare as we know it." Mr. Clinton might wish to say Mr. Dole failed to produce a workable bill.

If an acceptable bill does not emerge in Washington soon, the issue could be set aside there until after the November election. That would give the Maryland General Assembly time to adjust and could reduce pressure for a major reform this year.

Pub Date: 3/18/96


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