Gov. William Donald Schaefer, just hours before he is to depart for Kuwait, today lashed out at lawmakers who are criticizing him for cutting welfare payments and for leaving Maryland just as they are trying to find ways to avoid those cuts.
"It's easy to stand on the side and say he doesn't have a heart and doesn't care," said the governor, referring to lawmakers' comments. "I am not a miracle man. I only have X amount of money to distribute."
Schaefer said he had tried to discuss the welfare cuts with legislators before his administration announced them Monday, but he was told "they were busy" and did not have time to meet with him.
Schaefer said he hopes lawmakers are able to find money in the budget to restore the cuts. He refused to answer reporters' questions about the cuts or his three-day trip to Kuwait and walked away from a group of reporters as he prepared to leave the State House.
As he stepped into a State House elevator, Schaefer put both hands on a female reporter and directed her out of the elevator, saying, "You go over there, little girl."
Schaefer administration officials, struggling with a growing budget deficit, 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.
Legislative leaders were outraged and characterized the cuts as a cheap political maneuver to force the General Assembly to raise taxes. Under Maryland law, the legislature can only cut from items in the budget presented by the governor and hope he responds by moving the savings back into welfare.
Lawmakers were meeting today to find alternative cuts and were considering cutting some of Schaefer's favorite programs, including business-assistance programs administered by the Department of Economic and Employment Development. Lawmakers also are considering accelerating a proposed cigarette tax increase.
Schaefer today said that he may also have to trim funds from foster care programs.
"Foster care will be the next that will be cut, approximately $7 million," Schaefer said. "Hasn't been done yet, but a decision will have to be made. Someone will have to make it. I get paid to make those tough ones. I will not get the sympathy from the press or from the legislature. They will say I don't care. Well, if anyone cares, I care."
Concerning his 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 House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Eastern Shore. "I think he ought to stay at home."
With the end of the 90-day 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.
Schaefer administration officials have defended the governor's decision to go, saying he will promote trade with Maryland businesses.
Jon Morgan and the Associated Press contributed to this story.