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Governors Voice Concern at Welfare Cut’s Fiscal Effect

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The nation’s governors, meeting in Washington, expressed bipartisan concern Saturday about cutbacks in benefits for legal immigrants under last year’s welfare reform legislation, but Republicans immediately began backing away from efforts to push Congress hard to change the law.

GOP governors participating in a four-day meeting of the National Governors’ Assn. later passed a resolution opposing any major changes in the welfare reform law. But with some of their own members fearing the financial burden their states will face, the resolution by the Republican Governors’ Assn. also calls on Congress to make “technical corrections” to ease the impact of the law on some categories of legal immigrants.

Democratic governors--and some Republican dissenters--want to do more. They are supporting a proposal before the governors’ association calling on Congress to restore cash benefits and food stamps for certain elderly and disabled immigrants who entered the country legally before the welfare law was enacted in August 1996.

Some Republican governors from states with large immigrant populations have pressed to restore immigrant benefits. But their appeals have met with stiff opposition from Republican leaders in Congress who think that any effort to change the welfare law would risk unraveling last year’s carefully crafted agreement on the controversial legislation.

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Although GOP governors as a group voiced opposition to reopening the welfare law, they left open the possibility that they would support proposals from President Clinton to restore benefits for immigrants when he unveils his budget Thursday.

“We’ll have to wait and see what is in his budget,” said Michigan Gov. John Engler, a Republican. “This isn’t something we need to take the lead on.”

California Gov. Pete Wilson was absent from Saturday’s debate. He has been traveling in Asia in recent days, and has not taken a public position on the governors’ debate about restoring benefits for immigrants. California is one of a handful of states with large immigrant populations, where the issue looms large.

The maneuvering among the governors has broad political significance. During the past two years, the GOP-dominated governors’ association has been a pivotal ally of Republican leaders on Capitol Hill as Congress has tried to revamp federal welfare and other social programs to give more power and responsibility to the states.

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The group weighed in on last year’s welfare debate with a bipartisan proposal of its own. Republican governors in particular were intimately involved in crafting the final version of the measure.

The landmark 1996 welfare legislation gives states vast new power to run their own welfare programs, imposes new time limits and work requirements on welfare benefits, and cuts off benefits for legal immigrants. When he signed the bill, Clinton said he would fight this year to restore benefits for legal immigrants. The budget he submits to Congress is expected to include such proposals.

The law bans legal immigrants from receiving food stamps or Supplemental Security Income, which provides cash assistance to the elderly, blind and disabled. Those cuts accounted for about 40% of the savings made in the new welfare law.

The change will hit especially hard in California because the state is home to about 40% of all immigrants residing in the United States. Los Angeles County anticipates that some 150,000 legal immigrants will lose food stamps, while another 99,000 will be removed from the SSI rolls.

With the cutoff scheduled to take full effect Aug. 22, some governors have become increasingly worried about higher costs to their states once legal immigrants lose their federal assistance.

“The bottom line is that it always gets back to money,” said Ohio Gov. George Voinovich, a Republican. “I think that some of the guys, once they got home and realized some of the implications of some of this, found it was going to cost some money.”

Last week, New York Gov. George Pataki and some of his fellow Republican governors held a news conference calling for changes to ease those reductions. They got a chilly reception on Capitol Hill, where GOP leaders have insisted that the law be allowed to work for at least one year before they reopen the thorny issues they struggled for two years to resolve.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) pointedly discouraged GOP governors from seeking restoration of immigrant welfare benefits. “We have a great big national debt and an annual deficit that we’re trying to address,” Lott told reporters last week. “So when anybody comes up here and says, ‘Oh, geez, we need to open up welfare and add back $13, $14, $17 billion’ . . . I’m not real impressed with that.”

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At Saturday’s opening session, Republican governors seemed eager to patch up their differences with Congress. Engler said they had a “deep appreciation for the struggles that took place on Capitol Hill last year. We want Sen. Lott and [House] Speaker [Newt] Gingrich to know that.”

Democratic governors, meanwhile, announced their support for a proposal calling on Congress to restore food stamps and SSI benefits for refugees and immigrants who were in the United States when the welfare measure was signed in August 1996 and who are so disabled that they are physically or mentally incapable of applying for citizenship.

The Democrat-backed proposal also calls for allowing immigrants who have applied for U.S. citizenship to continue receiving welfare benefits while they are waiting for their applications to be processed. Delaware Gov. Thomas R. Carper, a Democrat, estimated that the proposal would cost the federal government as much as $1.5 billion a year.

But Republicans, who dominate the governors’ association because they represent 32 of the 50 states, have the power to kill the proposal, and Engler predicted that they would. “That draft won’t pass,” he said.

Iowa Gov. Terry E. Branstad, head of the Republican Governors’ Assn., suggested that one way to address the immigrant problem without reopening the welfare law would be for Congress to create a new block grant. But any new program is likely to face tough sledding in a Congress where Republicans’ top priority is balancing the budget.

Later Saturday, the Republican Governors’ Assn. unanimously approved a resolution calling on Congress to pass a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution.

Times staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell in Los Angeles contributed to this story.


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