Aid to poor cut illegally, suit contends Schaefer move held unconstitutional

November 05, 1992|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Staff Writer Staff writer John W. Frece contributed to this article.

An advocacy group for the poor has sued Gov. William Donald Schaefer, charging that he violated the Maryland Constitution when he ordered cuts in welfare and medical-assistance programs.

The lawsuit, filed this week in behalf of six Baltimore residents, challenges a 1939 statute that gives the governor authority to reduce the state budget when a shortfall is projected. The

plaintiffs' welfare and public-assistance payments were reduced as of Sunday.

The suit claims that the statute, which has never faced a legal test, essentially gives the governor a line-item veto over the budget. Governors have that constitutional power in 43 states, but not here.

The suit also contends that the legislature violated the constitution when it ceded this control over the budget.

Under the Maryland Constitution, the governor prepares the budget bill, then the legislature shapes and passes it.

The suit maintains that allowing the governor to reduce the budget, even during a fiscal emergency, blurs the separation of powers guaranteed in the constitution.

The legality of the cuts will be argued at a hearing Nov. 16 in Baltimore City Circuit Court. The hearing was agreed to yesterday by the attorney general's office and lawyers for the Homeless Persons Representation Project, which filed the suit.

"This may constitute the only public review of these cuts," said J. Peter Sabonis of the Homeless Persons Representation Project.

"People behind closed doors are making these decisions, Mr. Sabonis said. "For six public-assistance recipients, at least, this will be their chance in a public setting to tell how this affects them."

If a judge were to agree with the plaintiffs' central argument, it could force the state to back down on all its cuts to state agencies, Mr. Sabonis said.

Mr. Schaefer maintained yesterday that any change in his plan to reduce the state's $450 million deficit will only shift the pain elsewhere.

In addition to the governor, those named as defendants by the lawsuit are Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein and Treasurer Lucille Maurer, who with the governor sit as the Board of Public Works; Human Resources Secretary Carolyn W. Colvin; and Health and Mental Hygiene Secretary Nelson J. Sabatini.

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