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Wilson Rescinds Cutbacks in Food Stamps


SACRAMENTO — Gov. Pete Wilson rescinded an order to drop food stamp benefits for legal immigrants Thursday after federal officials said they will temporarily keep the program going even though it is to be eliminated as part of the nation's new welfare reform law.

The governor's order came just hours after Wilson officials told county representatives at a Capitol briefing that they are required under federal law to begin phasing out food stamp assistance next week for nearly 400,000 indigent legal immigrants living in the state.

The governor's office later reacted with surprise and anger to the letter from federal welfare officials, complaining that it is an about-face from previous orders. Federal authorities said, however, that they have been clear from the start about the program status.

"Is it any wonder why people think the federal government is a bunch of buffoons?" said Wilson press secretary Sean Walsh. "This is just outrageous."

The White House fired back Thursday evening: "On the subject of immigration and who is playing politics, Gov. Wilson is not in a propitious position to make charges," said White House press secretary Michael McCurry.

The episode underscored the confusion, politics and high stakes involved in the implementation of a landmark overhaul of the nation's welfare system in an election year.

"The state was far too aggressive in its . . . approach to eliminating the food stamp program," said Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, who contacted the White House about the issue early Thursday.

According to McCurry, Molina called White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta, a possible Democratic candidate for governor of California in 1998. Panetta spoke with Clinton about it during their bus trip through the Northwest. Clinton directed them to look into the issue and see what could be done.

Democrats privately suspected that Wilson's action was intended to embarrass President Clinton by cutting benefits for thousands of needy people in California weeks before the Nov. 5 election.

Many Democrats were angry that Clinton signed the welfare reform bill and, with that in mind, the president singled out the cuts for legal immigrants as a provision in the bill that he disliked and intended to change.

Wilson officials countercharged, however, that Clinton is playing presidential politics with the legislation by not implementing the bill that he signed.

The welfare reform bill would cut many public benefits to legal immigrants while giving states the discretion to restore the programs at their own cost. Since the legislation was signed Aug. 22, however, the White House has delayed implementation of those cuts by granting waivers and exemptions to a number of states.

Federal officials say the delay is necessary to reorganize the bureaucracy to handle the changes required. They did not say how long temporary funding for the program would continue.

But Wilson officials also questioned the waivers and exemptions, saying they suspected political motivations.

"The Clinton administration has needlessly confused hundreds of thousands of Californians," Wilson said in a statement. "This is either total incompetence on the part of the federal government or, more likely, political games being played out in an election year by the Clinton administration."

While the finger-pointing went on Thursday, county social workers were left in the lurch and community advocates for the poor were dizzied by the changing directions.

Earlier this week, Wilson's office sent notices to all county welfare offices in California notifying them that, starting next week, they would have to begin implementing plans to cut off legal immigrants from food stamps.

The same message was relayed personally to county representatives Thursday in a meeting in the Capitol. State welfare officials also held a news conference Thursday afternoon to tell reporters about the pending cuts.

Wilson officials said the governor did not see the letter from federal authorities until after 5 p.m.

"Everything we have now is so vague," said Angelo Doti, director of financial assistance for Orange County's Social Services Agency. "What we are hearing is word of mouth from the state."

Doti said they expected to get clearer instructions from state officials by late this afternoon.

"There are so many changes going on, and so many decisions yet to be made," said Doti. "We could really be up against it before this is settled."

Los Angeles County officials said they heard rumors about the letter from the Department of Agriculture on Thursday afternoon, but were still awaiting official word on whether or not to move forward with the cuts.

"I'm going to give it until over the weekend before we start taking action," said Lynn W. Bayer, director of the county's Department of Public Social Services. "On Monday, we'll see where we're at."

She added: "Right now it feels like we're in the eye of the storm."

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