Lawmaking in an election year General Assembly: Big budget surplus could help state legislators resolve controversies during 90-day session.

January 11, 1998

WITH A $260 million surplus staring at them, state legislators may have less trouble navigating the perils of an election-year session on Wednesday than would normally be the case. Money is wonderful medicine for healing bitter disputes.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening could benefit the most from the state's booming economy. His budget will contain plenty of enhancements in education, health, public safety and the environment -- all without endangering the state's fiscal well-being.

In the House of Delegates, Speaker Casper R. Taylor shares many of the governor's objectives, though he wants to put his own spin on these initiatives. In the Senate, President Thomas V. Mike Miller has allied himself closely with the governor -- a reversal from last year. He must deal quickly with the controversy surrounding Sen. Larry Young and his private-business dealings.

We have our own list of priorities for Maryland's 188 lawmakers to consider over the next three months:

School construction. We favor extra aid for new and renovated school buildings, bringing the total to $200 million. But we share concern this may be more than the counties can responsibly spend in one year. Baltimore, Howard and Anne Arundel counties have all had school construction controversies. Budget language mandating accountability and closer state oversight could ensure the money is spent wisely.

K-12 aid. Every major jurisdiction in Maryland has endorsed the $60 million consensus plan worked out by state school superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. Legislative leaders strongly support it, too. So do we.

On a related topic, aid to Prince George's County schools as that county ends decades of court-ordered desegregation, we urge caution. Before the governor and legislature commit to spending a quarter-billion-dollars on new schools in P.G., the county must present a comprehensive plan that can be evaluated by state educators. That can't happen until a federal judge rules later this year on the future of court-ordered busing.

Higher education. A greatly enlarged allocation for state colleges and universities should help make up some of the ground lost during the recession of the early 1990s. More money should be earmarked, though, for special initiatives on Maryland's biggest campuses.

The governor's revised scholarship aid program rightly focuses on helping science and technology students, and is in line with demands from state business leaders, who are having trouble filling high-tech jobs. A substantial boost in scholarship aid for needy students remains unachieved, though. The mot logical solution: Abolish the patronage-tinged senatorial and delegate scholarship programs -- $9 million of political perks -- and award the money to students from families with low or moderate incomes.

Health care. Both the governor and legislators agree a way must be found to expand health care for "working poor" women and their young children. But the governor proposes an entitlement program that would expand Medicaid coverage, while House leaders want a more flexible program stressing managed-create subsidies. The latter approach offers some intriguing advantages.

Environment. The Pfiesteria fish-kill crisis could return this summer. Lawmakers must act on recommendations from a commission to help Eastern Shore farmers reduce the use of chicken manure as crop fertilizer. That would lower damaging runoffs. With proper state aid, this won't prove an undue financial hardship for the shore's poultry industry.

Dairy farmers, meanwhile, want permission to join a regional milk price-control cooperative. Lawmakers should not rush to embrace this plan without assessing the impact on milk prices in urban and suburban areas.

Gambling. The governor says he will double state aid to Maryland race tracks, in line with a task force recommendations. LTC He ought to lessen regulatory burdens on the tracks, too.

Public safety. Money for a new maximum-security prison addition in Cumberland is essential. Planning funds for another prison ought to be included, too. The governor has been slow to respond to an explosive problem in state prisons. This is the year to act.

Transportation. Will this be the year the governor gives mass transit a boost? So far, Mr. Glendening has failed to develop a long-range vision for Baltimore's mass-transit system. With a hefty surplus, he has a chance to start design work on new rail links to the Metro and light-rail lines.

Welfare reform. More funds for day-care assistance and transporting former welfare clients to work would pay dividends. It would help workers get to their jobs and keep them.

Election-year sessions tend to be cautious affairs, where senators and delegates try to play it safe. They ought to use their 90 days in Annapolis this year to take some chances. Voters respect -- and expect -- such behavior from their elected representatives. Good legislating is good politics.

Pub Date: 1/11/98

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