In this election year, controversial stances likely to be scarce as hen's teeth in Annapolis

January 18, 1998|By Barry Rascovar

IT WAS a magic moment, one that few elected chief executives have the opportunity to experience. It was also a heart-wrenching moment, as speaker after speaker had trouble holding back the emotions of joy and fulfillment.

For Gov. Parris N. Glendening, last week's announcement of a five-year, $391 million plan to wipe out the long list of 6,000 dependent adults and children with mental and physical disabilities who are waiting for state services brought out the softer side of the normally stiff and formal governor.

He recalled a searing moment in the 1994 campaign of meeting a 74-year-old woman who cared for her disabled adult child. She expressed the fear of all such parents: What will happen to my son or daughter after I die? Her child, though, had an equally fearful image: Watching mom's terror mount over the years.

One brief conversation four years ago left a deep and vivid impression. Yet, like the governors who came before him, Mr. Glendening felt powerless to eliminate this intolerable waiting list. He was sharply criticized by the Association for Retarded Citizens for lacking a vision and a long-range plan. The same could have been said of his predecessors.

But now that the state is swimming in surplus revenue -- it almost surely will top $300 million when the governor's budget is released this Wednesday -- Mr. Glendening has seized the initiative to do what most governors only dream of: He plans to erase the entire disabilities waiting list, just as he plans to use surplus funds on a costly child-care initiative to help low-income working women and make massive education improvements.

He gets to see the smiles on people's faces as he proposes aid that directly helps Marylanders in need. He gets the personal satisfaction of doing what is right for this state's underclass and for this state's future adults.

Usually, governors don't have that luxury. They more often face tight budgets or deficits that force an agonizing balancing of priorities: Do I cut money for disabled adults or scholarships for needy students? Do I continue to let 6,000 disabled citizens go without state support services so I can use this money to avert a shortage of funds for AIDS clinics?

Or governors focus on ideological objectives: How deeply do I cut state programs to make room for lower taxes? Do I ignore the valid complaints of ARC about the unconscionable waiting list for disabled dependents so I can tell voters I used the surplus to cut their taxes?

Mr. Glendening comes out of this state's progressive-liberal tradition of Maryland's post-World War II governors. He's not big bTC on tax cuts while crying social needs go unmet. This year, he can solve some chronic public policy problems. And, of course, he's using the cash to solve his political problems, too.

With Maryland swimming in surplus money, Glendening knows that voters agree it's the economy, stupid. These are the best of times for a devoted public policy wonk like the governor. He can cater to special constituencies as he seeks re-election later this year. How he uses the $300 million surplus will be known Wednesday when the new budget is unveiled in Annapolis.

The trials and travails of West Baltimore politician Larry Young have grabbed all the news headlines recently. But the governor seems convinced that good economic times will be uppermost in voters' thoughts, that they will look at the Glendening record on bedrock issues -- education, environment, health-care, job growth and public safety -- and ignore everything else.

Judging from Bill Clinton's experience in the last presidential election, Mr. Glendening may be right. It is the economy, stupid! That's what counts.

But what also counts in a state of middle temperament such as Maryland is doing the right thing when the wherewithal is available, of helping the helpless, of guiding the ship of state through rocky fiscal shoals, of fostering growth, of steering a prudent course even when government is awash in cash.

These are the best of times for a devoted public policy wonk like Parris Glendening. Imagine: Wiping out that disabilities waiting list after decades of frustration and failure. There's one for the history books.

Here's another one for the history books: Using that gusher of new revenue for good causes puts Mr. Glendening one giant step closer to re-election in the fall.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 1/18/98

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