ANNAPOLIS – Social service advocates and lawmakers interested in welfare issues will likely focus on child welfare accountability and the hiring of enough child welfare caseworkers when the General Assembly convenes in January.
But a $311 million budget deficit projected by the Department of Legislative Services for fiscal year 2006, and Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s request that state agencies cut 12 percent from their proposed budgets, will continue to take a toll on social service programs throughout the state, advocates say.
“Social policy is driven by the budget,” said Linda Heisner, deputy director of Advocates for Children and Youth. “You can look at some policy issues in legislation, but you can’t look very far without finding the money to do it.”
According to Heisner, a 12 percent budget cut is enormous when dealing with health care, child care and juvenile services.
“Apart from legislation, the biggest issue is budget — it’s all about the money.”
Without knowledge of the governor’s budget, which will not be released until mid-January, many lawmakers say they are unable to predict how social service programs will fare in the coming year.
“We really are, at the moment, in the dark, because the budget comes from the governor’s office and the governor is not sharing it with the Legislature this year,” said Sen. Rona E. Kramer, D-Montgomery. “It will be purely speculative at this point for us to suggest (from) where these cuts might come.”
Sen. Ida Ruben, D-Montgomery, agreed.
“We have no way to see,” said Ruben. “I don’t know what he’s cutting, but I think people will suffer from the cuts. People want services, and you can’t have them without paying for them.”
Lawmakers also hope to improve child welfare accountability throughout the state.
“Child welfare is an incredibly tough issue in the state, foster care in particular,” said Delegate Norman Conway, D-Wicomico, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. “The number of youngsters that are involved, and their safety and welfare, are paramount to the success of any program.”
A work group was created during the interim to examine child welfare issues in the state, and will meet again in January to finalize recommendations, with possible legislation resulting.
Officials at the Department of Human Resources, which includes many of the state’s social service programs, must also wait to see how the governor’s budget will affect the department.
“Right now we don’t know what is going to happen with the budget,” said Norris West, communications director at DHR. “This is a challenging period for state government. We’re going to have to be as resourceful as possible. Beyond that we have to wait and see what the governor is going to decide for these programs.”
The department, which recently came under Senate scrutiny for missing an Oct. 1 deadline to hire enough child welfare caseworkers, must now look to meet its next deadline, as mandated by the General Assembly, before it can receive $1 million in state funds.
According to West, the department has 1,803 child welfare caseworkers on staff, with 30 more starting soon, bringing them closer to the required 1,891 goal by Jan. 1.
“What we’re hoping to see is that they meet that requirement in January,” said Delegate Talmadge Branch, D-Baltimore. “We’re going to be watching closely to see if they hire the amount of social workers needed.”
But lawmakers say the department could have been more diligent in its hiring process from the beginning, and staffing and caseloads will continue to be an important issue when the Legislature convenes.
“I think if they had put their efforts into it at the start, they would have been in a better position now,” said Kramer. “From this point forward, we need to make progress. I hope they have taken the time to find people who are qualified.”