As he departs tonight for Kuwait, Gov. William Donald Schaefer will take with him the angry words of state legislators, who are outraged at the governor for cutting welfare payments and for leaving Maryland with important legislative business still to be done.
In an unusually harsh statement, House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr. called the cuts "The most callous disregard for human suffering I have witnessed in my 21 years in the General Assembly."
Schaefer administration officials announced Monday that an increased caseload would require them to lower benefits in two key welfare programs. The $1.7 million in cuts are to go into effect April 1 and would affect about 98,000 welfare cases.
In a letter to welfare recipients, Maryland Secretary of Human Resources Carolyn W. Colvin blamed the cuts on the General Assembly's refusal to raise taxes.
Legislative leaders were outraged over the charge and characterized the cuts as a cheap political maneuver to force the General Assembly to raise taxes. Members of the legislature's budget committees complained that Schaefer never sought their help to avoid the cuts.
"We could have found the money. Those cuts did not have to be made," said state Sen. Laurence Levitan, chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee.
Levitan said he planned to meet with his counterparts in the House in an effort to find the money needed to keep welfare benefits at their current levels. Levitan and other lawmakers said they were confident the money would be found.
Concerning the trip to Kuwait, some lawmakers said Schaefer should tend to business at home.
"There are things that I think are more important than going to Kuwait right now," said Mitchell, D-Eastern Shore. "I think he ought to stay at home."
With the end of the legislative session just four weeks away, Mitchell said the governor should be around while the House and Senate are working on his bills.
"This trip to Kuwait boggles my mind," he said.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's, also expressed doubts about the value of the trip.
"I feel that we have needs in Maryland that must be addressed," Miller said, referring to a dispute between the governor and legislature over the welfare cuts.
"Perhaps the governor and the General Assembly should be [devoting] 100 percent of our time to addressing the state's problems," Miller said.
Schaefer received an invitation Monday from the Kuwaiti ambassador in Washington to accompany the emir of Kuwait on his return to Kuwait City Friday.
Schaefer, Bush administration officials and private business leaders have been invited to join the monarch when he visits Kuwait for the first time since it was liberated from Iraq.