A coalition of social service advocates warned today that expected federal cutbacks will "widen the decency gap" between the lives of Maryland's poor and the middle class and urged the legislature to pass and improve Hughes administration programs designed to benefit the poor.
Groups including lobbyists for low-income housing, energy assistance, food and welfare grant increases and housing for low-income families, came together to assert that "the Reagan administration over the past several years and especially this year has been systematically dismantling and destroying the safety net or programs that make life decent in Maryland and elsewhere," said Ron Halbright, president of the Maryland Low-Income Housing Coalition.
"We are urging the state to step in where they can and hold together Maryland's safety net," he said.
The General Assembly is grappling both with its fiscal 1987 budget, which includes some proposals for substantial and controversial increases in social spending, and with the effects of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings budget balancing measure, which calls for potentially steep reductions in the same kinds of programs.
Some Maryland lawmakers have argued that the state should not undertake large increases for programs recommended by Gov. Harry Hughes in areas including housing, food assistance and needs of the elderly, in part because of the need to resolve the state's savings and loan crisis and uncertainty over what federal cutbacks will bring.
Others have begun to argue that the state has an obligation to be more generous because of anticipated cuts.
Some of those issues were debated today in the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, which held hearings on two major programs designed to aid the poor as well as cuts recommended in those programs by legislature analysts.
The analysts recommend cutting $9.3 million from the $12 million increase Hughes recommended for the Social Services Administration and $2 million from Hughes' $38 million "housing initiative" aimed at improving housing for the state's lowest-income residents.
Among the cuts recommended in social services are a $300,000 reduction for family support centers, a neighborhood counseling service aimed at reducing teen-aged pregnancy; $420,000 for specialized foster care and $581,113 for 30 positions that an analyst said have been vacant more than six months. The two new programs should be cut, said the analyst's report, because both began as pilot projects and the benefits could not yet be proved.
A $2 million cut is recommended in $9 million sought by Hughes for a new program aimed at encouraging creation of housing for low-income families. The analyst who called for this cut cited questions about how much housing the program would produce.
Advocates turned out for both hearings to declare the proposed cuts "unfounded" and "ridiculous."
Michael Reisch, leader of Welfare Advocates, a group that lobbies for increases in welfare grants, said: "Maryland is one of the wealthiest states in the nation, but the number of poor people in the state has grown since the Reagan administration took office . . . .Those who are poor have made virtually no progress toward standards of minimal decency that the state established in 1979."