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Senate's Welfare Plan Infuriates Governors

By Judith Havemann
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 13, 1999; Page A2

Three years ago, Congress made a deal with the states: The governors would assume full responsibility for administering welfare, and the federal government would provide $16.4 billion a year to pay for it. But now the Senate is proposing to renege on the deal, and the governors are furious.

Senate appropriators want to use $350 million of the welfare block grants to offset the cost of providing disaster relief aid to Central America. Wisconsin Gov. Tommy G. Thompson (R), a leader in state welfare reform efforts, declared that the Senate has "unilaterally betrayed a promise that the House and Senate leadership made personally to me from day one."

The issue is caught up in the first major budget showdown of the year between the Republican Congress and the Clinton administration, and even the Republicans cannot agree among themselves. Rather than tampering with the welfare funds, House appropriators favor cutting other programs to offset the cost of the emergency relief legislation. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer (R-Tex.) called the Senate approach "breaking a trust."

Senate Appropriations Committee aides argue that the committee is not cutting, but only "deferring" the ability of states to spend unused 1997 and 1998 funds until the year 2002. Welfare directors say the deferral is a cut and nothing more.

When the welfare measure was passed in 1996, liberal opponents of the concept predicted that as soon as Congress ran into money trouble the block grant would be the first to be cut. Thompson said he hopes their predictions don't prove correct, adding that "it's just not right."

Congress initially promised states a hefty annual block grant that would remain unchanged for five years. The program provided states with the incentive to increase efficiency and save money that could be used for other programs or emergencies. But no one anticipated the sharp decline in the welfare rolls since enactment of the reforms that has allowed the states to reap a huge windfall.

More than 4 million people either found jobs, were turned away from welfare offices to search for work or were pushed off public assistance because they failed to comply with strict new rules.

Of the $30 billion made available to the states so far, $3 billion remains unspent. While 19 states, including Virginia, have spent every penny to which they are entitled, Maryland has spent only $147 million of its available $390 million and the District has used $35 million of its possible $153 million, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

Under the law, the states can collect their block grant funds from the U.S. Treasury only as reimbursements after they are spent. Some states, including Wisconsin, have deliberately left money in their federal welfare account in case of an economic downturn.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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