Senate panel OKs reform of welfare with family cap

March 19, 1994|By Robert Timberg | Robert Timberg,Sun Staff Writer

A Schaefer administration measure that would deny increased payments to welfare mothers who have additional children cleared its first major legislative hurdle yesterday.

By an 8-2 vote, with one abstention, the Senate Finance Committee passed the administration's key welfare proposal virtually intact, including the controversial family cap provision.

In addition to the cap, which applies statewide, the bill would require some recipients to participate in an experimental program in which they could lose welfare payments if they don't get a job or perform community service work after 18 months on the rolls. That provision would apply only to 2,000 welfare recipients in Baltimore City and Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties. Participants would be selected randomly. Those chosen would have to take part. In return, those participating would receive a number of incentives aimed at increasing self-sufficiency and ending the cycle of welfare.

The incentives include job search and skills training, assistance with child care, and a relaxation of rules governing the amount of money a recipient may save and the value of a car he may own.

The entire legislative package would launch a pilot program, which requires an exemption from the Clinton administration before it can be implemented.

The measure now goes to the full Senate, which is expected to take it up as early as Tuesday. Sen. Thomas P. O'Reilly, a Prince George's Democrat, termed its chances for passage "excellent."

Bonnie A. Kirkland, Gov. William Donald Schaefer's chief legislative lobbyist, echoed Mr. O'Reilly. "I think this is a major step toward meaningful welfare reform."

Opponents, primarily abortion-rights lobbyists and advocates for poor women and children, reacted harshly to the vote of the panel, which followed furious last-minute lobbying by both sides.

"I think the committee did a real disservice to women and the children of Maryland," said Sharon Rogers, lobbyist for Planned Parenthood of Washington. "The family cap is just punitive, a showpiece to take back to constituents."

The family cap may trigger an attempt on the Senate floor to amend the bill to make poor women eligible for abortions through Medicaid.

"There was a strong assumption that the cap would be taken off in committee," said Sen. Mary H. Boergers of Montgomery County, an abortion-rights advocate and Democratic candidate for governor. "Now people are going to have to regroup and strategize and decide what the next step is."

Abortion-rights advocates insist it is unjust to require a woman to limit her family without providing funds for her to terminate an unwanted pregnancy.

One committee member, Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, a Baltimore County Democrat who reluctantly supported the restriction on new pregnancies, said, "With the cap in, there is going to be havoc" similar to the bitterly divisive abortion battle of 1990.

Mr. Bromwell threatened to create some havoc of his own after two African-American panel members reported that Mr. Schaefer had told the Legislative Black Caucus that the cap didn't matter to him.

"He said, 'I don't care one way or the other,' " said Sen. Decatur W. Trotter, a Prince George's Democrat. Mr. Trotter said he asked the governor about the cap when he met with the caucus March 8.

"If I knew the governor had told the caucus that, I would never have voted for the cap," fumed Mr. Bromwell, impelling Mr. O'Reilly to send administration aides scrambling for a letter from the governor explaining his alleged remarks.

Mr. Bromwell, in protest, first voted against sending the bill to the full Senate, then changed his vote to an abstention.

Ms. Kirkland, the governor's lobbyist, said after the committee acted that Mr. Schaefer does consider the cap important and that his words to black legislators were simply meant to convey his desire that the General Assembly not let one element of the welfare package scuttle the whole proposal.

Sen. Larry Young, a black Baltimore Democrat, tried through a series of amendments to kill the bill or severely water it down, but the majority refused to go along.

The administration did lose one battle when the panel took out language delineating contraception methods that, in effect, women would have been encouraged to use. The list included intrauterine devices, but not condoms, birth control pills or diaphragms. Under the governor's bill, if women could prove they were using an approved method and nonetheless got pregnant, they would still have been eligible for additional welfare benefits.

"It really sounds like we were going to have some condom cops running around here, and I think that's outrageous," said Sen. Patricia R. Sher, a Montgomery County Democrat, in supporting the cut.

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