Removing Maryland's Safety Net

October 01, 1991

For thousands of Marylanders, the impact of the cutbacks Gov. William Donald Schaefer unveiled to legislative leaders yesterday will be a free-fall into economic despair and uncertainty about government's obligations to society. TC significant portion of Maryland's social safety net is being removed.

Wiping out the state's welfare and health programs for 24,000 disabled or working poor Marylanders could prove disastrous for most, since they do not qualify for federal public assistance. Cuts in grants to local health departments will mean fewer doctors and nurses to treat the state's poor. Cuts in the state's addiction services will mean less help for those hooked on drugs or alcohol. And shuttered State Police barracks, fewer troopers and an end to prison assistance programs will lessen the assurance of personal security, especially for suburban and rural Marylanders.

In all, $450 million in reductions were outlined by the governor, who was forced to take these drastic steps by the General Assembly's repeated refusal to face the tax-and-spending reality confronting Annapolis: revenues have tumbled even as more people come to depend on the state's safety net of social services. Yet lawmakers won't consider higher taxes to support these services.

Governor Schaefer has little choice. Legislators want lower state spending, even though 80 percent of Maryland's $11 billion budget is mandated by state or federal laws. So he has to make steep cuts into the remaining programs, especially in the areas of health, social service and public safety. These are, indeed, painful and destructive moves.

Even worse news may lie ahead. If legislators persist in their head-in-the-sand attitude, Mr. Schaefer will have to repeat this exercise in January. Only then the cuts will total at least $800 million, not the current $450 million of reductions listed yesterday. Such staggering blows would go far beyond the 1,700 layoffs and sweeping program terminations unveiled yesterday. January's reductions would degrade the quality of life in every school, every county or city government and for every Marylander one way or another.

Admittedly, some of the governor's moves are politically motivated. Certain cuts put at risk the livelihood of state employees and the welfare of aid recipients in order to pressure legislators who have had a field day lambasting the governor while they demagogue on the "no new taxes" issue. Now it is their turn to feel the political heat.

Yet Mr. Schaefer deserves praise, not blame, for making the difficult decisions that legislators have steadfastly avoided. House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell, in particular, has constructed a one-man blockade against a special session to raises taxes. After today's formal announcement of the administration's cuts, it will be up to Mr. Mitchell and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller to find the money to save the most crucial jobs and programs from the Schaefer guillotine. Failure to act could lead to dire social consequences.

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