Schaefer budget cuts upheld by judge

December 03, 1992|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Staff Writer

A Baltimore Circuit Court judge upheld yesterday the constitutionality of budget cuts made by Gov. William Donald Schaefer, leaving in place reductions in welfare benefits and the elimination of the state's medical assistance program.

Chief Judge Robert I. H. Hammerman's ruling may have ended the first legal test ever of a 1939 Maryland statute that empowers the governor to cut any department's budget -- by up to 25 percent -- when a budget shortfall is projected.

Lawyers for six plaintiffs affected by the cuts had brought suit, arguing that the statute violated the constitutional principle of separation of powers by allowing the governor to usurp the legislature's role in shaping the budget.

But Judge Hammerman, after listening to two hours of testimony, disagreed. The statute may give the governor a lot of power, he said, but that is not unconstitutional.

"I think that the total picture that emerges is [of] a strong and powerful governor, just as Baltimore has a strong mayor," Judge Hammerman said. "The legislature has a limited role in Maryland. In a very real sense, it has been cut out of the most important decision of all -- priorities."

In Maryland, the governor presents a budget to the General Assembly, which can cut programs but cannot create new ones unless it also creates a mechanism to pay for them.

If the state faces a deficit, the governor has the authority to cut programs. (Maryland faces a $450 million deficit in the current fiscal year.)

On Sept. 30, the Board of Public Works approved $200 million in cuts ordered by Governor Schaefer. The lawsuit centered on about $70 million of that amount -- reductions in Aid to Families with Dependent Children and General Public Assistance, and the elimination of medical insurance for disabled indigents.

Evelyn O. Cannon, litigation chief for the attorney general's office, maintained that the governor had complete discretion over the budget. Nevertheless, she said, "we were quite relieved" by the judge's decision.

For several homeless people who sat through the hearing, the ruling was a bitter disappointment.

"This is about my life," said James Perry, 36, whose public-assistance check was cut from $205 to $154 on Nov. 1, and who lost all his medical coverage as of Tuesday. "That man [the judge] just made it even worse."

J. Peter Sabonis of the Homeless Persons Representation Project, who represented the six plaintiffs, said he plans an appeal.

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