GOP Governors Seek More Leeway to Revamp Welfare : Funding: State chiefs say they want flexibility to design social programs. But a lack of safeguards could imperil the poor, the Administration argues.


Republican governors once again called on the federal government Sunday to give states more freedom in crafting a new welfare system, while Clinton Administration officials and other Democrats warned that such an approach--without safeguards--could hurt millions of poor children.

“You know, if you give us the flexibility, you’d be surprised at how much opportunity there is out there for 50 governors to come up with new programs,” Wisconsin Gov. Tommy G. Thompson said on CBS-TV’s “Face the Nation.”

Thompson and others echoed a theme that has surfaced repeatedly in recent weeks on Capitol Hill and elsewhere as the debate over welfare reform has escalated: Eliminate welfare as a federal entitlement program and have Washington give the states money in the form of block grants, allowing them to each decide how to allot the funds.

“There ought to be an entitlement, not by individual, but by the states,” said California Gov. Pete Wilson, speaking on ABC-TV’s “This Week With David Brinkley.” “The states ought to receive block grants. We ought to determine how to administer that.”


But Democrats predicted tragic results if states experience severe economic problems and run out of money or are forced to make tough choices about how to use it.

“Wisconsin may be able to take care of all of their poor children if there’s an economic downturn, and another state may not be able to,” Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala said on the CBS program. “When we lay out this debate, it’s . . . about how we take care of our children.”

Last year, the Administration proposed a welfare reform plan with job training and education for recipients but a cutoff of benefits after two years. The Administration’s proposal also would have enforced laws requiring unwed mothers to identify the fathers of their children and tightened procedures for collecting child support so that less financial assistance would be needed from the government.

House Republicans have put forth the block-grant proposal. Their plan also denies cash welfare to unwed mothers younger than 18 and would deny aid to legal immigrants who are not yet citizens.


Democratic Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont, speaking on the ABC program, agreed with Shalala. “If you sign the money over to the states with absolutely no strings, there’s no guarantee that in some future date that money won’t be used for something else.”

But Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), a GOP presidential hopeful, said painful decisions were inevitable if the programs are to be overhauled. “You can’t change this mammoth system without hurting some people,” he said on NBC-TV’s “Meet the Press.”

“When my mama worked in a cotton mill, she earned more than $28 a week--she earned self-respect, and I think we’ve got to ask the people riding in the wagon to get out,” he added. “I think we’ve got to stop giving people more and more money to have more and more children.”

Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr. (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Ways and Means subcommittee that oversees welfare, agreed that the entitlement approach must change.


“Entitlements are government on autopilot,” he said on the CBS program, predicting that the balanced-budget debate in Congress will force lawmakers “to look at all entitlements.”

Wilson predicted that California would ratify a balanced-budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution--recently approved by the House--and he blasted the federal government for so-called unfunded mandates to the states, citing in particular the “motor-voter” law, which requires that Americans be permitted to register to vote at motor vehicle departments and other state agencies. The Justice Department has sued the state for failing to enforce the law.

“I am, frankly, outraged by the fact that the federal government repeatedly foists upon the people of my state and other states duties that are not paid for by the federal government,” he said. “If the federal government thinks that it is important to have a motor-voter registration, then let the federal agencies implement it. I don’t see why my taxpayers should be required either to pay for it or to have to stand longer in lines.”