Schaefer offers to lift curbs on abortion

April 02, 1994|By Robert Timberg | Robert Timberg,Sun Staff Writer

Gov. William Donald Schaefer moved to salvage his embattled welfare reform proposal yesterday, agreeing to lift restrictions on state-financed abortions for poor women in return for legislation denying higher payments to welfare mothers who keep having children.

As a further inducement to win the support of wavering legislators, Mr. Schaefer also proposed a 2 percent increase in welfare benefits.

The governor told the General Assembly, which is considering his welfare measure, that he would strike from the state budget longstanding restrictions on Medicaid-funded abortions -- if his so-called family cap is enacted as part of the welfare reform bill.

"It's a crass way of putting it, but, yeah, it's a trade-off," said Page W. Boinest, Mr. Schaefer's spokeswoman.

Although the governor's action surprised many legislators, it was not clear what impact it will have on the debate over abortion and welfare reform. The administration says it will help. Some lawmakers say it will make no difference and could work against the governor's goal.

If nothing else, it confirms hints from Schaefer aides that the governor, despite previous misgivings, is prepared to sign a welfare bill that removes the obstacles to Medicaid funding of abortion, assuming other provisions are to his liking.

The family cap is a dramatic, highly controversial proposal that PTC only a few states have tried. The governor and many legislators believe it will foster a sense of responsibility on the part of women on welfare. Opponents say it will punish poor women and their children.

By stepping so publicly into the fray, Mr. Schaefer seemed to affirm what his aides have said privately for days -- that the welfare reform bill without the controversial family cap is a modest measure at best.

If Maryland adopts the cap, it will be following the lead of Virginia, which enacted similar legislation a few weeks ago, and New Jersey, Georgia and Wisconsin, according to Daryl C. Plevy, deputy director of human resources.

She said 21 other states are considering similar measures. Preliminary data from New Jersey, the first state to implement the cap, show a 9 percent drop in births to welfare mothers, Ms. Plevy said.

In offering to drop the Medicaid restrictions, Mr. Schaefer took a big step toward redeeming a pledge made nearly eight years ago, when he first ran for governor.

In 1986, candidate Schaefer promised that if elected, he would remove the abortion restrictions from the state budget. Once in office, however, he changed his mind, angering abortion rights advocates, including some women on his staff.

If both houses of the General Assembly go along with the deal offered by the governor yesterday, the state will no longer require women to meet restrictions dating back more than a decade to qualify for Medicaid-funded abortions.

Under existing law, to terminate a pregnancy with Medicaid funds a woman must demonstrate that she is the victim of rape or incest or that the pregnancy poses a serious threat to her mental or physical health.

The House has approved a welfare reform bill without the family cap. But the House bill also says that if a cap is imposed by legislative or executive action, the Medicaid abortion restrictions must be dropped.

The Senate has passed by a wide margin a version of the welfare bill that includes the cap and would lift the abortion restrictions.

As his price for scrapping the restrictions, the governor is demanding approval of a provision in the welfare bill denying more payments to women who conceive and bear children while receiving public aid.

The governor offered his deal in the form of an amendment to a supplemental budget he submitted to the General Assembly yesterday. The $57.7 million supplemental budget provides for the 2 percent increase in welfare benefits. That would raise monthly payments to a family of three by about $7, to $373.

The budget includes $2.6 million for the welfare reform bill, with millions more for education, health and other programs.

News of the governor's action on the abortion-family cap issue swept the State House complex, catching most legislators and lobbyists on both sides of the issue off guard.

At first blush, the impact of the governor's move was unclear.

Administration sources said the governor's action would enhance prospects for the cap, pointing out that some House leaders opposed it not on its merits but to stave off a floor fight over abortion.

Thus, with the Mr. Schaefer making a commitment to take care of the abortion matter, many votes for the cap will be freed -- or so the governor's strategists hope.

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