Disappointing report card for General Assembly

Limited focus: Lawmakers and governor failed to address major long-term issues facing Maryland

April 16, 2000

WHEN a report card contains almost as many Fs as As, and almost as many Ds as Bs, it's been a rollercoaster of a semester.

That was very much the case with the just-concluded Maryland General Assembly session, during which lawmakers and the governor can claim significant achievements but also left behind too many failures.

Disappointing is the best word to describe the 90-day session. Long-term issues that bedevil parts of the state remain unaddressed. Efforts to help Maryland's poorest and neediest citizens were shelved. Attempts to mandate sweeping reforms in public schools and in the treatment of juvenile offenders met with defeat.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening and legislators had a $1 billion budget surplus yet failed to address a $27 billion funding gap in state transportation over the next two decades. Baltimore's deadly drug epidemic got token attention. The city school board's thoughtful reform plan -- more pre-kindergarten, more summer school, more classroom computers -- was ignored by the governor.

These are issues that must be faced if Maryland is to secure its economic future. But elected state leaders weren't up to the task.

Before the session opened, we published our list of priorities. In some categories, such as gun safety, State House officials came through brilliantly. On other topics, though, they flunked the test.

Here are the 16 items on The Sun's editorial agenda for the 2000 General Assembly and how things turned out by the time the legislature adjourned Monday night:

Education

The state school board's $49 million early-intervention plan to help middle-school and elementary-school pupils who fall behind in reading and math.

It was distressing to see Gov. Parris N. Glendening oppose his own school board and school chief on this important issue. Eventually, he grudgingly put $12 million into the middle-school intervention program, but refused to help failing 1st and 2nd-grade students.

His decision could have disastrous long-term consequences. Every education study shows that very early intervention is critical to ensure that children gain the skills to succeed in life.

Even when the legislature tried to mandate more funds for the middle-school intervention plan in 2001, the governor objected. In the end, he agreed to put up at least $19.5 million next year to help deficient middle-school students. We urge the self-styled "education governor" to become a booster, not an opponent, of elementary-school intervention, too.

Grade: C-minus

Baltimore's request for $25 million to help the state's worst-performing school system focus on students having trouble making the grade.

Aside from school construction money -- where much of the state's budget surplus was spent -- city schools received little new classroom aid from the governor. This wasn't one of his priorities -- and legislators didn't try very hard to change his mind.

Grade: F

Crime and punishment

Overhaul the discredited and scandal-plagued Department of Juvenile Justice.

Another Glendening-Townsend administration failure. A task force fashioned a reform package to revamp the agency and ensure accountability. This seemed to have the support of Mr. Glendening and Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

But once the administration boosted the department's budget substantially and got Bishop L. Robinson confirmed as secretary of juvenile justice, it came out against the reform package.

None of the bills passed. Advocacy groups fear there could be political cover-ups if Mr. Robinson's rehabilitation plans don't work or new scandals break out in the department.

Grade: D-plus

Support changes in Baltimore's chaotic criminal-justice system. The governor came through with more money for prosecutors, public defenders and judges to reduce the backlog of cases and improve accountability -- but the legislature cut out some of the court funds. This foolish budget move will slow reform efforts. Much more money will be needed next year if Annapolis is serious about helping the city create a criminal-justice system that works effectively and efficiently.

Grade: B-minus

Expand Baltimore's drug-treatment program with $25 million in new state funds.

State drug-treatment aid rose 42 percent, but only $8 million found its way to the city, the area of greatest needed.

That is far short of what's truly required to deal with this explosive problem. Four out of five city crimes are drug-related. Yet neither the administration nor the legislature made this a priority.

Grade: D-plus

Transportation

Lower the state's 50-percent fare-box mandate for buses and subways.

This was supported by Mr. Glendening and legislative leaders. The new law sets the fare-box mandate at 40 percent, thus giving transit officials flexibility to experiment with neighborhood bus routes, suburb-to-suburb routes and tying more routes to light-rail and Metro stations.

Grade: A

Earmark a portion of the state sales tax to mass transit.

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