Welfare reform bills clash

March 29, 1994|By Robert Timberg | Robert Timberg,Sun Staff Writer

The Maryland House and Senate set themselves on a collision course over welfare reform yesterday, one chamber approving a limit on payments to recipients who have more children, the other refusing to go along.

The Senate, on a strong 29-18 vote, gave final approval to the welfare reform proposal, complete with the so-called "cap" on family size and the scrapping of funding restrictions on abortions for poor women.

The House passed its measure 109-23 without the cap, but agreed under pressure from abortion rights advocates to fund abortions with state medical assistance money if the cap is eventually enacted.

As a result of yesterday's action, the future of welfare reform, a major Schaefer administration initiative, appears uncertain as the General Assembly moves into the final two weeks of its 90-day session.

Also in doubt is the fate of the Senate-led effort to end the restrictions on Medicaid abortions, a long-standing goal of abortion rights advocates who insist the restrictions discriminate against poor women.

The two bills now switch chambers, but differences are unlikely to be resolved, if they can be resolved at all, until a six-member House-Senate conference committee is named to search for a compromise.

The Senate set the stage for yesterday's action by giving preliminary approval Thursday to an amendment to the welfare bill lifting the abortion restrictions.

The House, moving with lightning-like speed, in a matter of hours yesterday passed its bill out of committee and through preliminary and final approval by the full chamber.

Before the bill went to the floor, a House committee removed the language denying higher payments to welfare recipients who have more children while on the public assistance rolls.

That language is a key provision of the administration bill that abortion rights advocates had used to leverage the abortion language into the Senate measure.

Abortion rights senators, backed by heavy lobbying on the part of various advocacy groups, insisted that it is unfair and punitive to deny payments for additional children while denying women the funds to terminate unwanted pregnancies.

At issue is a ban on using state medical assistance, or Medicaid, funds to pay for abortions unless the women is a victim of rape or incest or if her physical or mental health is in danger.

Since the Senate acted, House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., D-Allegany, has said that the welfare reform legislation may be imperiled by the Medicaid abortion provision.

In line with that sentiment, a key Taylor lieutenant, Appropriations Committee Chairman Howard P. Rawlings, persuaded his panel yesterday to strip off the family cap in

hopes of removing a major arguing point for abortion funding.

Mr. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat, supports abortion funding and the cap on family size, but he argued against both in committee and on the House floor on grounds that a fight over abortion could kill welfare reform, especially in the Senate, where it may be vulnerable to a filibuster.

Despite his warning, the House voted 67-65, with nine members not voting, to support an amendment offered by Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg to require Medicaid funding of abortions if the cap is finally imposed, either by legislative action or regulation.

"The two issues are inextricably tied together," said Mr. Rosenberg, another Baltimore Democrat and a longtime abortion rights advocate.

Sen. Thomas P. O'Reilly, whose Finance Committee handled the welfare bill in the Senate, reacted to the action by the House with dismay. "The bill without the cap is nothing," said the Prince George's Democrat.

Carolyn Colvin, state secretary of human resources, made it clear that she would consider the loss of the family cap a major defeat.

"I don't think we really have a bill without it," she said. "The heart of the bill is the family cap."

The welfare reform proposal is a pilot program that needs federal approval before it can be implemented.

Ms. Colvin confirmed yesterday a report that has occasionally surfaced as the measure has worked its way through the legislative process -- that there is no requirement that the General Assembly act on the bill or its several provisions for Maryland to qualify for the necessary federal approval.

But she said the administration wants a display of legislative support to reinforce the federal application and because the pilot program will depend on legislative goodwill for funding while in effect.

The money would be used to assist recipients with child care, the main expense item, and with transportation to and from jobs if necessary.

The welfare reform bill also includes a small pilot program in Baltimore City and in Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties that would require recipients to take a job after 18 months on the rolls or perform community service if they can't find work.

They would lose their welfare benefits if they refused to do so.

For all the controversy, a relatively small percentage of families on welfare would appear to be affected by the cap. According to state figures, of the roughly 78,000 women on welfare last fiscal year, about 4,000 gave birth to additional children.

The state paid for 3,230 Medicaid abortions in fiscal year 1992, the last year for which figures are available. Fiscal analysts estimate that the state would pay for an additional 1,600 abortions if the restrictions were lifted.

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