Memo to governor: Use the surplus to help Baltimore

November 07, 1999|By Barry Rascovar

FEW people are as important to Martin O'Malley as the "man who wasn't there" when the mayor-elect gave his victory speech Tuesday night.

By the time Mr. O'Malley delivered his thank-you remarks, Gov. Parris Glendening had disappeared. A few hours earlier, though, over bottles of Irish beer, the governor had delivered the message Mr. O'Malley wanted to hear: There's going to be "a new relationship" between Mr. Glendening and Baltimore. That would mark a radical departure from the frosty relations between Mr. Glendening and outgoing Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke in recent years.

The two men disagreed over slot machines for Baltimore so fiercely that the mayor supported a challenger when Mr. Glendening ran for re-election last year. Baltimore has suffered from this feud.

That's about to change. Mr. Glendening is sitting on a whopping surplus. What better way to spend some of this excess cash than on chronic urban problems, such as crime and drugs? Baltimore's steep decline in recent years is one of the main impediments to Maryland's economic development prospects. That's why reversing Baltimore's situation is in the governor's best interest.

State House allies

Mr. O'Malley has a golden opportunity to latch onto state money to help achieve some of his goals. Not only is the governor eager to assist the new mayor, but also Lieutenant Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend wants to help.

And why not? Mr. O'Malley is the most spectacular new star on the Maryland political scene in a long time. His father-in-law is Maryland's attorney general, J. Joseph Curran Jr. Two of his biggest and most vocal backers are chairmen of the General Assembly's key budget committees - Del. Howard "Pete" Rawlings and state Sen. Barbara Hoffman.

What the mayor-elect has to do is draw up a detailed plan for Annapolis consumption. Not just his wish list, but specific programs he is ready to implement. He knows he must give the governor and lawmakers a persuasive case for supporting these programs, along with strong accountability benchmarks to make sure the state's money is well spent.

Time is not on his side. Even before his inaugural on Dec. 7, Mr. O'Malley ought to have a legislative package in Mr. Glendening's hands. Why the rush? Because final decisions on next year's budget will be made by early December.

It's far easier in Annapolis to get your priorities included in the governor's initial budget presentation than to scramble to get requests added later. Combating crime is the new mayor's stated objective. It's an area where the need is glaring, even to lawmakers from outside the Baltimore region.

Coming to the rescue

Now is the time for the governor to take the lead. An aid package to support anti-crime efforts in the state's most violent subdivisions seems like a no-brainer, especially when Mr. Glendening is sitting on a huge surplus. Timing is also ripe to pump state money into criminal-justice agencies in troubled jurisdictions.

The governor should embrace the latest proposal from the Conference of Circuit Judges to reduce court backlogs. The judges are seeking a $50 million boost in state support over four years. He also should consider a special appropriation for the city's dilapidated courthouses, which Baltimore cannot afford to underwrite.

The city's state's attorney has been denied extra funds for years by the Schmoke administration; now Mr. Glendening can ride to the rescue. Money to help put more criminals behind bars is a winning political proposition.

Drug treatment is another fertile area for city-state cooperation. Maryland's under-funding of drug prevention efforts is appalling. The city has just 7,000 treatment slots serving 18,000 people. Yet there are an estimated 60,000 addicts in Baltimore. A targeted effort to reach these people should become a state priority.

Mr. Glendening takes pride in his "Smart Growth" program, which is designed to encourage more sensible development patterns near existing infrastructure and government-provided resources. What could be more sensible than a major state effort to rejuvenate Baltimore so that middle-class families return rather than leave for the sprawling suburbs? That would be the wisest Smart Growth policy of all.

With a friendly Mr. O'Malley about to replace Mr. Schmoke, Mr. Glendening ought to make Baltimore his Smart Growth laboratory. There are few better ways to use the state's excess funds than helping to secure this region's future prosperity.

Barry Rascovar is a deputy editorial page editor.

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