Benefits ordered restored to disabled Case against state pending in court

November 17, 1992|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Staff Writer Staff writer John W. Frece contributed to this article.

An article in The Sun yesterday on a court ruling about cuts in welfare reported incorrectly the cost to the state of restoring General Public Assistance benefits for two months. The correct figure is about $2 million.

The Sun regrets the error.

A Baltimore Circuit Court judge ordered yesterday that recent cuts in welfare benefits be restored to approximately 23,000 disabled adults in Maryland.

The plaintiffs' lawyer said the ruling was a victory for the six welfare clients who sued the state last month, charging that its recent budget cuts were unconstitutional.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

But Chief Judge Robert I. H. Hammerman was quick to point out that he was not ruling on the merits of the plaintiffs' claims, only on the fact that those affected had been harmed by the cuts. "I don't have great confidence plaintiffs will prevail on the merits, // but I think they have a shot," Judge Hammerman said. "All I'm doing is saying the status quo shall be maintained until the case is decided. To do otherwise would cause irreparable harm."

Still, J. Peter Sabonis, the plaintiffs' lawyer, said he saw the judge's decision as a positive sign.

"It's a victory, no question about it," said Mr. Sabonis, of the Homeless Persons Representation Project, a non-profit organization that provides legal services for homeless people, and which filed the suit. "He could have said you don't have a substantial likelihood [of winning]. He didn't do that. He found in our favor. I have to be encouraged."

The judge's ruling, which could be appealed by the state today, means that the Department of Human Resources must restore the cuts to about 23,000 people, whose average benefits dropped from $205 to $154 on Nov. 1. The December checks also will be at their original level, because the next hearing in the case is Dec. 2.

But the ruling applies only to the state's General Public Assistance (GPA) recipients, single, disabled adults certified as a class in the suit.

And the overall cost to the state is relatively small, in the context of its $450 million budget deficit. Over two months, reinstating full benefits to GPA clients should cost less than $200,000.

The lawsuit, filed Nov. 2 in Circuit Court on behalf of six Baltimore residents, claims Gov. William Donald Schaefer violated the Maryland Constitution when he cut the budget this fall. Under the constitution, the governor proposes a budget, then the Assembly shapes and cuts it. But under a 1939 statute, the legislature has given the governor the power to cut the budget when a deficit looms.

Mr. Schaefer and the Board of Public Works did just that Sept. 30, cutting millions from social services programs, part of a plan to avoid a $450 million shortfall.

The suit claims the 1939 statute essentially gives the governor a line-item veto over the budget. Governors have that constitutional power in 43 states, but not in Maryland.

The suit also contends that the legislature violated the constitution when it ceded this control. Allowing the governor to reduce the budget, even during a fiscal emergency, blurs the separation of powers in the constitution, the suit maintains.

The governor has said simply there is no money. If welfare recipients get full benefits back, someone else must suffer, he said.

"Clearly this is something we're going to have to look at," his acting press secretary, Page Boinest, said. "The cuts were difficult to make, but they were made as part of the overall budget plan. If that cut is not valid, then the money is going to have to be taken from another program."

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