Gov. Parris N. Glendening is asking the General Assembly to approve a major overhaul of Maryland's welfare system that would ultimately force half of Maryland's adult welfare recipients to work.
Legislation introduced in the House of Delegates yesterday would set a five-year lifetime limit on an individual's right to receive welfare. Welfare recipients would be forced into community service jobs if they did not find work after two years in the program.
The bill, which is sponsored by two Baltimore delegates on the administration's behalf, anticipates changes pending in Washington, as Congress and President Clinton attempt to settle their differences over welfare reform, including a plan approved Tuesday by the nation's governors, said Alvin C. Collins, secretary of the Maryland Department of Human Resources.
"This is going to put Maryland at the forefront of welfare reform in this country," said Mr. Collins, a former director of Baltimore's welfare agency. "It's going to force our clients to be more responsible."
The proposal is patterned after a pilot project the General Assembly approved on the final day of the 1995 session and that was set to begin later this year. But instead of affecting only 3,000 families in Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties and Baltimore, it would extend to all 80,000 welfare families statewide.
As approved by the legislature last year, the bill would require that women who have babies while on welfare not receive more money. Instead, they would be given a voucher good only for child-related expenses.
"We want a statewide program that is consistent with the goals and principles of the bill we passed last year," said Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, who is co-sponsoring the measure with fellow Baltimore Democrat Del. Howard P. Rawlings. "This is being done in anticipation of welfare reform. It's inevitable that it's going to change at the federal level."
The legislation would force half of the state's adult welfare recipients to join the work force. That is in anticipation of a federal mandate on all states' recepients by a certain year, possibly by 2000.
Mr. Collins said the state's welfare system will provide cash payments only as a last resort. The payments would be retitled TCAs, or Temporary Cash Assistance, to reflect that they are not a permanent entitlement.
The new system would emphasize flexibility, he said, by allowing local welfare offices to design their own programs. "We want to take advantage of the unique characteristics of this state so that each jurisdiction can do some creative things," Mr. Collins said. "We want to provide such things as child support, help with the job search and make cash assistance the last option of the program."
Mr. Collins said the governor wants to pursue welfare reform whether or not Congress takes action and will seek the necessary waivers from the Clinton administration to do so.
How far the state can go, however, may depend on how much money Maryland loses when the federal government makes the widely anticipated switch from the nation's current welfare program to a block-grant payment. State officials anticipate that welfare payments will likely shrink when that happens.
"At the moment, my budget is written in pencil," Mr. Collins said.
Sen. Martin G. Madden, chairman of the Senate subcommittee that oversees welfare issues, said the state would be wise to make changes now rather than wait for Washington.
It is possible, he said, that Congress will pass legislation that makes reform retroactive to last Oct. 1. Failing to act now would put Maryland far behind in the process.
"It's important that we devote as much resources as we can now to putting people to work as soon as possible," said Senator Madden, a Howard County Republican. "When the clock starts ticking, it's eating up valuable time we have to get people to self-sufficiency."
The Glendening administration believes that a new welfare system could be in place in Maryland by December.
But finding and supervising thousands of community service jobs could prove a daunting task, officials acknowledge, particularly since the program's goal would be to find work that provides jobs skills, not just make-work assignments.