Crime, AIDS top agenda for city in '94 Assembly

January 10, 1994|By Michael A. Fletcher | Michael A. Fletcher,Staff Writer

Convinced that the state government has little money for costly new programs, Baltimore officials plan to focus their legislative efforts this year on inexpensive measures aimed at attacking two of the city's most corrosive problems: crime and AIDS.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke raised eyebrows among city legislators last week when he declared that his administration's top priority for the 1994 session of the General Assembly will be winning approval of a pilot needle-exchange program.

Mr. Schmoke also told legislators that the city plans to lend strong support to gun-control legislation drafted by Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse. The proposal would ban the sale of assault weapons in Maryland and require state residents to get a license before buying a handgun or ammunition. No one under age 21 would be permitted to own a handgun.

Absent from the city's agenda are some of the big-ticket items that have been there in the past. In recent years, the city has managed to get the state to take over its community college, jail and much of the funding for the Baltimore Zoo.

The city has also won a "disparity grant" that compensates it for the relatively low income tax revenue it generates because of its dwindling middle-class population. This year, the city received $31 million from the state under the program.

"The agenda is modest this year," said John A. Pica, chairman of the city's Senate delegation. "But given the lack of resources in the state budget, we should be realistic about what's available."

The city will support efforts to increase state education spending, including support of a proposed program that would allow schools with a high percentage of poor students to apply for state grants. But city legislators and lobbyists are not optimistic that there will be a lot of new education money in the state budget.

"We'll be in more of a defensive position than one of offense," Mr. Pica said. "Our goal is to maintain the ongoing funding the city receives."

AIDS prevention a priority

The General Assembly's special joint Spending Affordability Committee has recommended that next year's state operating budget grow by 5 percent above current levels.

The recommended increase would not be enough to cover programs now in place because of new aid mandated for next year, inflation and a 3 percent cost-of-living increase proposed for state employees.

Mr. Schmoke agreed that the city is not seeking any expensive new programs this year. But at the same time, he refused to downplay the importance of the city's initiatives.

"I don't think it is a modest agenda, given that the No. 1 priority is the AIDS prevention program," he said. "We recognize it is going to take a great deal of lobbying, and the program is of great importance to this community."

Mr. Schmoke noted that Baltimore is among four cities in the country where acquired immune deficiency syndrome is the leading cause of death for people ages 25 to 44. And a needle-exchange program could help slow the spread of AIDS, he said.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who previously opposed Baltimore's efforts to launch a needle-exchange program, has said he would support emergency legislation allowing the city to dispense clean syringes to drug users.

Officials cautiously optimistic

In the past, the General Assembly refused to exempt the city from a state law prohibiting the distribution of syringes and other drug paraphernalia. But now that Mr. Schaefer has said he would support a strictly regulated program on a pilot basis, city officials are cautiously optimistic that the plan will win legislative approval. The cost of the pilot program has been estimated to be about $160,000.

While the deadly illness used to be found predominantly among homosexual men, about 70 percent of AIDS cases in Baltimore are among intravenous drug users. It has been estimated that about one-quarter of the city's 40,000 drug addicts carry the human immunodeficiency virus.

The clinic that will house Baltimore's needle-exchange program would be staffed by health educators and nurses to offer counseling and medical services, including testing for tuberculosis and AIDS.

While the city plans few new expensive programs, legislators will be seeking state support for a number of capital projects in Baltimore. The state's capital budget, which this year is $350 million, is separate from the operating budget of more than $12 billion.

The city has yet to finalize its capital agenda, but among the items being discussed are:

* The Baltimore Children's Museum and the National Center for Children, planned for the site of the failed Brokerage mall near the Inner Harbor. The plan is for a $45 million center that would include exhibits, retail space and interactive programs for children. The city has not decided how much support to seek from the state for the project.

* An Earth Conservation Center at the Baltimore Zoo. The center is envisioned as a facility that will make the zoo a year-round destination. It will include animal and plant exhibits and an auditorium. The overall cost is estimated at $18.9 million, although for next year, the zoo would be seeking only $750,000 in design money from the state.

* Expansion of the backstage area and dressing rooms at the Lyric Opera House. The project, which would allow the theater to accommodate larger Broadway shows, is estimated to cost $1.8 million. They city may seek $600,000 from the state.

* Renovations at the Walters Art Gallery. About $1 million may be sought for improved security, fire prevention and climate control systems.

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