The Maryland House of Delegates overwhelmingly approved a bill today that would require the state to provide at least $1 million toward a federal nutrition program for low-income pregnant women and young children beginning July 1992.
"I'm still in a bit of shock that we were able to get it through," said the bill's chief sponsor, Del. Marsha G. Perry, D-Anne Arundel.
The measure, which now goes to the state Senate, began gaining steam after the governor on Monday submitted a supplemental budget that included, for the first time, state money for the Women, Infants and Children Supplemental Feeding Program, or WIC.
General Assembly leaders turned down the supplemental budget, citing its late submittal, among other reasons. Many lawmakers, however, still want the state to begin kicking in money for WIC annually, as Perry's bill provides.
WIC provides supplemental food, nutrition education and referral health-care providers for low-income pregnant women, nursing mothers and children under age 5.
Program supporters say the federal government has not been providing enough money to enable all eligible Maryland women to receive WIC benefits.
By investing in the WIC program, they say, the state will reduce infant mortality and save money that otherwise would be spent on medical care for sickly and premature babies.
But several legislators say the bill's success so far is a little unusual because many lawmakers dislike measures that require programs to receive certain amounts of money. Such laws, or mandates, will tie the state's hands during lean years, such as the current one, when the budget must be cut.
Del. Nancy K. Kopp, D-Montgomery, said some lawmakers resorted to the bill after Gov. William Donald Schaefer failed to respond to their requests that he include money in the budget for WIC in recent years.
"Under the circumstances, it seemed to the Appropriations Committee that there was very little recourse other than mandating it," Kopp said after that committee passed the bill earlier this week.
Paul Schurick, Schaefer's press secretary, said Schaefer did not include WIC funds in the state budget because "until now, the governor thought the federal grants could stand on their own."
"If we ever lacked evidence before, we have it now" that state money is necessary, Schurick said.
A survey released this week concluded that one out of every eight children under age 12 in the United States is living in hunger. Advocates have called for more money for programs such as WIC.
A Senate budget leader, Laurence Levitan, D-Montgomery, predicted that legislators would begin enacting more laws to address budget items because of their problems in working with Schaefer.
Amy Blank, a lobbyist for a Baltimore-based child-advocacy group, said she was "on a high" over the WIC bill.
She said she wished, however, that more would be done for children this year.