Smart budget, to a point

March 19, 2000|By Barry Rascovar

THESE are good times for Gov. Parris N. Glendening. Most of his legislative package is sailing along and his pick for president, Al Gore, is on a roll.

Yet there's a feeling of missed opportunity. Given the state's $1 billion surplus, much more could have been done to attack some intractable problems.

Mr. Glendening tends to take a disciplined approach, focusing only on key objectives he feels most strongly about. Not surprisingly, these tend to be items that could further this career.

For instance, he wants to advance his reputation as the "smart growth governor" through a bill that could affect most homeowners on a septic system.

He wants to be known as the "smart gun governor," who delivered a first-in-the-nation law mandating high-tech safety locks.

He wants to be known as the "education governor" who put $600 million into school construction and college buildings.

He wants to be known as the "anti-cancer governor," who earmarked $1 billion from the state's tobacco settlement for cancer-research and anti-smoking efforts.

And he wants to be known as the "labor governor," who delivered higher pay to the teachers union and an expanded prevailing wage law to construction unions.

In most cases, the governor has picked admirable goals. Only in a few areas is he running into trouble.

On "smart guns," the governor faces defeat unless he sharply limits the scope of his bill. Flexibility on his part will be critical. That would involve compromising on the unproven, high-tech elements of the bill drawing skepticism.

On "smart septics," the governor faces defeat unless he yields. Areas near the Chesapeake Bay with chronic, failing septic systems need attention. But the bill would affect the majority of homeowners on septic systems. Replacement costs could be staggering. That's why the bill is in trouble.

Beyond these measures, the governor's in great shape. With so much money to dispense, it's been easy to win over lawmakers.

In some significant areas, though, the governor has missed a chance to use the state's huge surplus to attack nagging problems.

First, he decided to focus on the wrong end of the education yardstick. New school buildings are helpful, but Maryland's education shortcomings lie in the classroom.

The state school board proposed a $49 million plan to eliminate "social promotions" -- teachers passing unprepared students along to the next grade. They wanted early and swift intervention steps before kids fail.

Meanwhile, the Baltimore city school board proposed its own $50 million list for turning around the state's worst-performing system.

Neither proposal became a Glendening priority. In the end, he'll pony up some of the requested money. But the governor hasn't been an aggressive champion of classroom-improvement plans.

That's unfortunate. New buildings are nice (and easy to take credit for), but what's the point if kids still can't read at grade level?

Second, regarding crime and drugs, the governor also stayed off the front lines. He and his lieutenant governor have worked behind the scenes but haven't committed the resources experts say are needed.

They've let a rookie mayor, Martin O'Malley, take the lead without giving him the support he deserves. They will come through with some dough, but not the kind of cash infusion to dramatically transform this sorry situation.

This will delay an all-out effort to get the drug epidemic and violence under control.

And finally, the governor decided to ignore his own task force on transportation and postpone efforts to fill a $27 billion shortfall in the state's 20-year road and subway-building program.

He could have pushed to dedicate additional state revenue for transportation. That's what House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. suggested. Had the governor teamed up with Mr. Taylor, a bill might have been passed.

Instead, Maryland wanders in the transportation wilderness.

Mr. Glendening could well address all three of these concerns next year. But things could be far worse by then in education, drug enforcement/treatment and transportation. And the state's revenue outlook may never again be as bright as it is right now.

A golden opportunity may have been missed.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor.

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