Slow progress in General Assembly

Action List: Many priorities aren't gaining support from governor and legislature.

Agenda 2000

March 20, 2000

DESPITE A $1 billion budget surplus, both Gov. Parris N. Glendening and leaders of the Maryland General Assembly are coming up short in dealing with major unmet social needs this year.

Some of these issues, such as mandating safety locks for handguns, don't even require more money. And yet that bill, like too many others of importance, isn't faring well.

With three weeks left in this legislative gathering -- and two weeks to wrap up the next state budget -- it is time for decisive action. Legislators need to challenge the governor to meet the social challenges he thus far has shied away from.

Back in January, we published an editorial agenda for the 2000 General Assembly and for the governor. Here is a look at where we stand on those 16 items:

Education

Ending "social promotions" in schools statewide through an early intervention program that centers on mandatory summer school classes and tutoring in the early grades.

Sadly, this proposal from the State Board of Education has failed to make the governor's priority list. He has said he will put in money for some of this initiative, but not the full $49 million.

He should reconsider that decision, and top legislators should demand that he find more cash to support state school superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.

Giving Baltimore's schools $25 million to expand pre-kindergarten programs, put computers in classrooms and speed repairs.

Again, the governor is talking about meeting a fraction of the city's needs. That's not adequate, given the abysmal state of education in Baltimore, where 85 of every 100 kids can't read at grade level. Legislators such as Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman and Del. Howard P. Rawlings must forcefully press the governor for more classroom aid.

Crime and punishment

Overhauling the state's dysfunctional Department of Juvenile Justice. This is happening, albeit slowly. The governor has promised funds to begin the top-to-bottom rebuilding of this agency. But a long list of reform bills still await House and Senate action.

Criminal justice changes in Baltimore City. Ever so gradually, advances are taking place, thanks to the impatient prodding of Mayor Martin O'Malley. The governor has been less forthcoming in promoting specific changes but he's putting up extra money to advance negotiated reforms.

Drug-treatment money for Baltimore's narcotics-addiction epidemic. Mr. Glendening has resisted giving Mayor O'Malley the $25 million he seeks to add drug-treatment slots. Here's the best reason for legislators to see that the governor comes up with the money: Four out of every five crimes in the city are linked to drugs.

Transportation

Lowering the "fare-box mandate" to cover expenses on Baltimore-area bus and subway lines. This proposal has strong backing from the governor and key lawmakers. The change could mean more bus routes and innovative mass-transit programs.

Earmarking a portion of the sales tax for mass transit.

This bill is going nowhere. It's opposed by the governor and top fiscal leaders in the legislature. That's too bad, because Maryland's mass transit needs are growing but the state lacks money to pay for such necessities as new east-west light-rail lines in metropolitan Baltimore.

Social services

Raising grants to single, disabled adults who don't qualify for federal help. Giving these 10,000 jobless adults $132 a month isn't enough. Yet Mr. Glendening resists pleas to raise this meager sum by just $18 a month. Instead, he has cut $2.1 million from the overall program. There is still time for the governor to reconsider and help some of Maryland's neediest.

Providing education and support aid to low-income workers who take courses at local community colleges. Both the House and Senate are pushing their own versions. One is likely to pass.

Expanding the state's health program for low-income children to more working-class families. The governor's proposal would add 19,000 more kids to the program. It has been warmly received by the legislature.

Increasing the size of the refund the "working poor" can get from the Earned Income Tax Credit. It's the best way to make low-income families self-sufficient, but the governor isn't supportive. The best hope is Senator Hoffman's bill seeking a slim increase in the EITC rather than a more costly House version.

Other priorities

Mandating safety locks on handguns. This is long overdue. Too many children are injured or killed because they gain access to loaded weapons. The governor's bill is sweeping in scope, calling for high-tech safety locks. That has created troubles in the Senate. Compromise is needed to get the bill out of committee.

Giving the insurance commissioner power to hold the Injured Workers' Insurance Fund accountable for its actions. The House seems eager to do this, but Sen. Thomas Bromwell of Baltimore County remains a stumbling block. He wants aweaker bill that would let IWIF evade the kind of regulatory oversight imposed on every other insurer in Maryland.

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