ANNAPOLIS – A welfare reform bill moved closer to passage Friday after a House committee made changes to a plan by the Department of Human Resources to cut welfare payments to disabled people.
The department, in new regulations, intended to count payments under the federal Supplemental Security Income program as part of a welfare recipient’s income. This would have lowered the recipient’s grant and saved the department about $14 million a year.
But in giving its 20-6 approval to the welfare bill that last week passed the Senate, the House Appropriations Committee adopted an amendment by Del. Nancy Kopp, D-Montgomery, keeping a 50 percent exemption for SSI payments in calculating Aid to Families with Dependent Children.
The exemption is currently 100 percent, and Del. Joan Parker, D-Baltimore County, argued that it should stay where it is.
“It’s either 100 percent, or those who take it will have blood on their hands,” Parker said in an interview before the committee voted.
Others had similar reservations.
“I think it’s unconscionable for us to balance the department’s budget on the backs of disabled children,” Del. Brenda Hughes, D-Prince George’s, said during debate in a committee work group.
Del. Martha Klima, R-Baltimore County, asked why the work group was forced to deal with the proposed cut in the SSI exemption at “the eleventh hour.”
“The reason was it was hidden in regulation,” said Del. Sue Hecht, D-Frederick.
After the work group adjourned, Deputy Secretary Lynda Fox insisted in an exchange with Hecht that the proposal had been “in plain view” all along.
The department also plans to end the practice of giving welfare recipients the first $50 of their child support payments, which are collected and kept by the state. This, like several other proposed changes, will require federal approval.
Another change addresses the issue of how much of recipients’ earnings should be ignored as they move from welfare to work.
Currently, in computing AFDC grants, the department ignores one-third of earnings, plus $30, in each of the recipient’s first four months on a job. In each of the next eight months, only the $30 is ignored. The amount is referred to as an “income disregard.”
The department wanted to save money by changing the disregard to a flat 20 percent for as long as the recipient is eligible for welfare. But on Friday, Del. John Hurson, D- Montgomery, succeeded in raising the disregard to 28 percent.
Del. Robert Flanagan, R-Howard, supported Hurson’s amendment.
Earlier, Flanagan warned that the department’s preoccupation with meeting its budget risked losing sight of substantive policy reform.
“I do not think philosophically we should be trying to micro-manage things so that all the little numbers add up,” he said. “We are not going to be able to get welfare reform on the cheap.”
In an interview last week, Fox said the cuts are necessary to avoid further reductions in the department’s basic grant, which has dropped from $406 in 1990 to $373 today for a family of three. Together with food stamps of $313, such payments provide 62 percent of what the state defines as a minimum living level, down from 86 percent in 1990. -30-