A session to boost governor's ambitions

April 09, 2000|By Barry Rascovar

IT'S A MATTER of perspective.

To Gov. Parris N. Glendening, the General Assembly session, which ends its 90-day run in Annapolis tomorrow night, has been a slam-dunk, super-success for the administration -- and for his future political ambitions.

Yet for an assortment of advocacy groups, this legislative session has been a tale of unfulfilled potential, of dreams squashed by an administration focused more on gaining glowing publicity than on solving pivotal societal problems.

In the end, advocates for the poor, for juvenile justice, for drug treatment, for crime-fighting aid and for education reforms received veritable pittances out of a $1-billion-plus budget surplus.

They feel a golden opportunity has been squandered.

From the governor's side, the story looks quite different.

Much of that surplus ended up in rainy-day funds for the future or in one-time construction projects. That way, the state isn't building in large expenses it won't be able to afford in the next recession.

Yet Mr. Glendening was able to spread the largess around so that everyone got a consolation prize. For instance, Mayor Martin O'Malley wanted $50 million or more for drug treatment expansion; he received $8 million.

State school chief Nancy Grasmick wanted $49 million to give failing kids reading and math help as part of mandatory testing for graduation. She got $12 million.

Lead-paint removal efforts received $5 million, yet advocates say $70 million is needed to solve this scourge that destroys the lives of thousands of unsuspecting children.

Criminal-justice reform in Baltimore City got just $5.4 million, which hardly scratches the surface as far as the true needs.

The city police department, understaffed and lacking sophisticated crime-fighting equipment, got no help from Annapolis -- even as it commences a demanding get-tough-on-crime strategy.

Advocates for the poor feel especially shafted. Most of their proposals ended up in tatters, without support from the governor.

And those pushing for a badly needed revamping of the state's juvenile justice system found the administration closing ranks rather than pushing for opening the department to strong oversight.

Having been badly burned by scandals in juvenile justice, Mr. Glendening and Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend don't want their attempts at reforms being second-guessed in an intense public spotlight.

For advocates of these causes, the 2000 General Assembly has proved a bitter disappointment. It was a lost chance to start fixing some serious social ills.

Yet from the governor's office, this session looks much different.

Mr. Glendening proposed a progressive agenda in education, health and the environment. He achieved nearly all of his objectives.

And he gained national attention for his first-in-the-U.S. law requiring safety locks on handguns. He also got good publicity for insisting the state's tobacco-suit money be devoted almost exclusively to fight cancer, anti-smoking campaigns and education.

All that positions him well as he becomes chairman of the National Governor's Association this summer. His legislative triumphs dovetail nicely with Vice President Al Gore's campaign pledges.

Could a Cabinet post in a Gore administration be in the offing?

Still, there's a nagging feeling that Mr. Glendening missed a chance to directly address some of the state's worst social dilemmas.

But the governor knows he can start down that road next year -- if the state's buoyant economy cooperates.

That's when the city courts, State's Attorney's Office and police department will be better prepared to undertake more sweeping changes requiring large state aid.

That's when state school officials will be fully ready to implement tougher graduation requirements and will need far more money for tutoring, mentoring and summer school programs.

That's when the city's drug-treatment effort could have its act together to justify a massive infusion of state assistance.

And that's when a reorganized juvenile justice agency can make a stronger case for big money to support after-care services and more effective incarceration programs.

The demands on the governor this year were intense; in 2001, he may find advocates unwilling to accept any more consolation prizes.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor.

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