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Wilson Offers Plan to Retain Welfare Cuts

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gov. Pete Wilson, hoping to preserve welfare cuts jeopardized by a recent court ruling, told federal officials Thursday that he plans to exempt disabled recipients and certain children from the reductions.

In a letter to federal Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, Wilson said he believed the exemptions would “easily resolve” the court’s problems with California’s welfare cuts and remove the legal cloud that has hung over them since the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling last month invalidating the reductions.

California Health and Welfare Agency spokeswoman Shannon Bowman said the Wilson Administration has not yet determined how many recipients would be exempted or the cost to restore their benefits.

She said the exemptions would apply to families with disabled adults and some of the so-called child-only cases--those in which only the children in a family unit are receiving assistance from the Aid to Families With Dependent Children program.

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In California, those two categories make up nearly a third of the 918,000 AFDC cases. Bowman cautioned, however, that not everyone in that group will be granted the exemptions.

Wilson’s decision represents a major concession to the appellate court and it indicated that California may no longer be able to institute across-the-board welfare reductions as it has done for the last three years.

The effect of welfare cuts on disabled adults and children was a key factor in the court’s 2-1 decision, in which it found that the Bush Administration had violated federal law when it approved California’s 1.3% AFDC benefit reduction in 1992.

The court faulted the Administration for failing to consider the impact the 1992 cuts would have on the 2.7 million Californians who receive welfare, noting that it would put some segments of the welfare population at “increased risk of homelessness, inadequate nutrition and a variety of emotional and physical problems.”

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The state is required to seek federal authorization for such cuts because they bring California’s welfare benefits below a federally established level.

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The Bush Administration not only granted the authorization but also gave the state approval for future cuts totaling 5%. The following year, 1993, the state cut benefits another 2.7%. This year, the governor and the Legislature approved a 2.3% reduction, effective Sept. 1.

In its ruling, the court did not specifically order benefits restored but left room for the state to reapply to the federal government for new authorization. The court made it clear, however, that the new application would have to comply with its findings and that the state would be required to show that the cuts would not harm recipients.

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Wilson has said repeatedly that welfare cuts serve as an incentive for recipients to go to work and improve conditions for their families. The court challenged that notion, saying it could not see how work incentives could benefit either disabled recipients or child-only cases.

Wilson said Thursday he expects to submit a new request for federal authorization within two weeks, and he urged Shalala to act quickly.

“Failure to review and approve the proposal promptly will increase the likelihood of additional challenges in state and federal courts,” he wrote.

But advocates for the poor, who had filed the lawsuit challenging the cuts, predicted it would be many months before Shalala makes a final decision. They said Wilson has also asked the 9th Circuit Court for a rehearing, and they believe Shalala is not likely to respond until the court acts on that request.

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Curtis L. Child, an attorney for Legal Services of Northern California, said advocates for the poor plan in the meantime to ask the federal appellate court to delay implementation of the Sept. 1 welfare cuts. The cuts are expected to save the state about $5.6 million a month and are designed to help ease the state’s budget crisis.

Child said he will argue that since the latest cuts are based on an authorization that was invalidated by the court, they should not go into effect until the issue is finally resolved, either by Shalala granting a new authorization or a court ordering restoration of benefits.

“The state shouldn’t be allowed to proceed with further implementation of cuts that rely on an invalidated (authorization),” said Casey McKeever, an attorney for the Western Center on Law and Poverty Inc.

He said advocates for the poor intend in the near future to seek restoration of both the 1992 and 1993 benefits.

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Since 1990, when welfare benefits in California reached their highest levels, the maximum cash grant for a typical family of three has dropped from $694 a month to $607. If the newest cuts go into effect on Sept. 1, benefits will drop to $593 a month. The reductions have been offset partially by increases in federal food stamps.


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