Catch-up time for Maryland Governor's budget: He uses hefty state surplus to attack long-neglected social problems.

January 22, 1998

PRESIDING OVER a booming state economy is every governor's dream -- and a reality this year for Maryland's chief executive, Parris N. Glendening.

With a $283 million surplus that could balloon further before the General Assembly departs in April, the governor has chosen to attack numerous long-neglected social problems in his $16.5 billion budget. In an election year, that's good politics. But far more important, it's also good government.

In a large sense, the Glendening agenda is an effort to catch up with the state's unmet commitments and to address some of its unmet needs. Surplus dollars permit the governor to restore much of the funds cut from worthy social programs during Maryland's deep recession early in this decade.

For instance, a 1988 pledge to boost higher education spending got sidetracked when the local economy soured; now Mr. Glendening wants to boost college and university aid by nearly 8 percent ($59 million), and add $119 million in campus construction. Faculty salaries would be raised substantially to retain outstanding instructors, and new state aid would ensure a freeze on tuition increases.

Similarly, Baltimore's community college would get a $1.8 million increase in aid, which had been promised in pre-recession legislation.

Here are some of the other catch-up items in Mr. Glendening's budget request:

$68 million over five years to eliminate the list of 5,300 people with mental and physical disabilities who await state placement in service programs.

$222 million to cut deeply into the backlog of school construction requests. Eighty percent of the work would be renovations and additions to schools in older communities.

A new science and technology scholarship program that eventually would cost $10 million a year to meet the urgent pleas of fast-growing Maryland companies for more college graduates with the skills to fill high-tech jobs.

$37 million more to beef up staffing at state prisons, after riots last year, and construction funds for a delayed prison addition in Western Maryland to hold the most violent inmates.

$13 million more for the state police to start a replacement program for their vehicles, purchase a 12th MedEvac helicopter and begin a maintenance program that would double the life of the other 11 helicopters.

$27.5 million more to help former welfare recipients make the transition to work through child care programs, job training and substance abuse treatment.

All of these would be wise investments. Many of them are one-time expenditures. That's the smartest way to spend surplus funds.

Mr. Glendening also deserves credit for proposing that $100 million of the surplus be set aside to help pay for the 10 percent income-tax cut that is being phased in over the next five years. Without such a set-aside, Maryland could quickly plunge back into an era of large budget shortfalls in a few years.

Two proposals mentioned by the governor in his State of the State address yesterday could stir considerable controversy. One would set up a new health-care entitlement program for children of Maryland families earning less than $32,000 a year. tTC Lawmakers ought to act cautiously before endorsing a well-intentioned plan that could have long-term negative consequences on the state budget through a vast expansion of the Medicaid rolls.

The other hot-button proposal would require farmers to implement nutrient runoff-control programs and reduce the amount of manure fertilizer they use in the fields. This is an essential part of the governor's comprehensive program for protecting the health of the Chesapeake Bay by preventing major outbreaks of toxic Pfiesteria in bay fish. That ought to be a legislative priority. A state partnership with farmers and the Eastern Shore poultry industry is the best way to eliminate this threat to public health.

Republicans already are blasting the governor for his big-spending plans. House Minority Leader Robert H. Kittleman of Howard County said he had "a Santa Claus mentality." Senate Minority Leader F. Vernon Boozer of Baltimore County said the surplus should be returned to citizens by accelerating the income-tax cut. Republican gubernatorial candidate Ellen R. Sauerbrey goes on the airwaves today to criticize the governor's multiple handouts.

That's an expected part of the political show, especially in an election year. Most lawmakers rightly expressed satisfaction with the governor's generous but still prudent approach. Democratic budget leaders insist they will trim at least $27 million from the governor's plan to make it fit under the General Assembly's spending limit. But that's also to be expected -- and welcomed -- as part of the checks and balances of Maryland's state government.

Pub Date: 1/22/98

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