ANNAPOLIS -- And so we have commenced the annual humiliation of the city of Baltimore: Drowning in social problems, financially busted, politically depleted, its legislators now scrounge for money from surrounding counties, which sneer that the city already gets too much help.
What a sick joke.
If all goes according to unwritten plan, we're about to witness the beginning of Baltimore's slow death by starvation this legislative session. You think Philadelphia's got problems? You think Newark's a junkyard?
All the elements are in place to send Baltimore in the same direction:
* A governor who understands the city's needs but is a political lame duck and who is, frankly, not as popular across the state as he was a year ago nor as powerful in the State House as he was the last four years.
* The growing political muscle of the Washington suburban counties, to whom Baltimore is not only a distant spot on the map but, more crucially, a non-existent spot in their hearts.
* The strangling economy, which has everybody looking in the mirror and forthrightly declaring: ''This is the only face on earth that matters.''
The economy is why, for example, we have the appalling sight of the Eastern Shore folks, who never miss a shot at rapping the money currently going into light rail for Baltimore. Why, they cry, should our tax money have to pay for city transportation?
Nobody's supposed to remember the $35 million in tax money that just went into the Kent Narrows Bridge.
Nobody's supposed to mention the $40 million that went into the Choptank River Bridge.
Nobody's supposed to recall the $50 million that went into the Vienna Bridge.
Nobody's supposed to mention that these improvements make it more enticing for folks from the Baltimore area to come to the Eastern Shore and spend even more money there.
Did somebody mention money?
The high rollers in Montgomery County make the same arguments: Why should we have to help pay $250 million for the city to have 27 miles of light rail?
Nobody's supposed to mention the $220 million Montgomery County just got for 13 miles of I-270. Or the expected $150 million it'll cost for another five miles of the same road. For that matter, while sneering at the city, Montgomery County's pushing hard for a light-rail line of its own, from Bethesda to Silver Spring. A year ago, Gov. William Donald Schaefer gave the tentative OK for $70 million.
The $70 million was based on Montgomery County's own cost estimates. Of course, the state then hired an engineering company to do independent estimates. The engineers laughed out loud. The latest state estimate says such a line would cost up to $224 million.
Never mind light rail, though. When the city holds out its hands, it's usually for social help. Do we need reminders that most of the state's poor and desperate live in Baltimore? Apparently, surrounding counties always need reminders.
What, more money for city schools? they cry.
Give us a break. In the last four years, the city of Baltimore's gotten $33 million for school construction. Does that sound like a lot for the state's most densely populated area?
In the same four years, Montgomery County got $43 million, Baltimore County got $23 million, Prince George's got $25 million and Howard County got $23 million.
There's a difference, though. In Montgomery, for example, they've used the money to build 13 new schools, and Prince George's has built 18 new ones. The city has built only five new ones; most of the city's money has gone to patch up old roofs and boilers and remove asbestos.
In other words, the city gets make-do money for aging buildings,the counties get glitter money, but the city still has this image of somehow getting a special break every year.
It's not just schools, either. Look at general capital projects -- hospitals, day-care centers, homeless shelters, government buildings -- over the last four years:
Anne Arundel County, $915 million.
Prince George's County, $710 million.
Montgomery County, $705 million.
Baltimore City, $670 million.
Are we making a case here that the city doesn't get more money than its wealthy neighbors?
Of course not. The city's got more poor, more disabled, more dangerous, more troubled kids and more decaying structures than anybody else.
Those who think they're helping themselves by cutting off city assistance are living in a dream. They think they can pull up a drawbridge, that they can draw lines in the sand and keep the city's troubles from spilling over.
That's why we've reached the current crisis with money: Schaefer, for all his personal problems with Mayor Kurt Schmoke, has still managed to steer more money to Baltimore in four years than Harry Hughes did in eight years.
But what happens to the city with Schaefer's diminishing muscle and with oddsmakers saying the next governor's likely to be from the D.C. suburbs? Do we go back to a Harry Hughes mentality, letting the city struggle to stay alive?
That's exactly the spot we're approaching now: With the city prepared to beg once again, with the counties hoping nobody remembers when their own hands were held out, and with people inside the State House thinking the city's problems will not ultimately affect everyone else.