Preventive medicine for General Assembly

Agenda: Wise use of surplus by governor and legislature could pay off handsomely years from now.

January 07, 2001

REMEMBER the adage, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure"? That should be paramount in the minds of lawmakers and the governor as Maryland's General Assembly convenes Wednesday for its 90-day session.

State leaders could take significant steps this year in four areas that would produce major dividends down the road. But it will take foresight and political courage.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening has made it clear he intends to put much of the state's excess cash into bricks and mortar -- K-12 public school construction and a massive building binge on state college campuses.

But many of these college-building projects aren't critical; they can be put off a few years. And there's valid concern that local school boards can't effectively manage all the construction being approved by the state -- more than a quarter-billion dollars' worth each year.

Mr. Glendening and legislators should seriously consider directing this surplus money to immediate needs in health care, early childhood education, drug treatment and crime prevention -- investments with the potential for big payoffs.

Health care

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. and other lawmakers are urging the governor to take advantage of a federal matching program to give low-income parents medical coverage. Some 60,000 poor children already receive state health-care benefits. It's a successful program, which has won praise from federal officials for its effectiveness.

A companion health-care program for parents would lower long-term medical costs the state now picks up for poor people. It would keep these individuals productive and healthy.

Education

Early childhood education is the key for many impoverished children. Kids show up for first grade prepared to learn how to read and reason. Counties that stress preschool programs have shown large gains on statewide tests.

Two steps are in order:

Expand the Judy Hoyer Centers for preschool youngsters, especially in high-poverty areas. These learning centers can serve as a vital bridge for these kids so they gain basic skills needed to succeed in school.

Fund the creation of all-day kindergartens in schools with high numbers of poor kids. Eventually, all-day kindergarten makes sense in every Maryland elementary school.

One study of at-risk children found that those who attended a quality preschool did better in the classroom, had fewer traumatic social adjustments and ultimately got better jobs.

Researchers estimate that every dollar invested in preschool education saves $7 in other government programs, such as welfare, unemployment and remedial education.

Drug treatment

Ask Baltimore Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris how to dramatically cut the city's crime rate and he'll tell you: more drug treatment programs. Up to 90 percent of the city's crimes are drug-related.

Ask parole and probation officials what they need to keep their clients out of jail and they will tell you the same thing.

That's why the city's request for another $17 million for drug-treatment slots is a win-win proposition.

Do the math: This money would be enough to serve 9,000 addicts annually. The Center for Substance Abuse Research found that Maryland saves $20,000 in social costs -- medical care, lost productivity, injury and death -- for every addict treated.

Crime prevention

The Glendening administration has failed in its first six years to put adequate funds into prevention programs for juvenile delinquents and those released from state prison. It's time to reverse that trend.

Juvenile officials want to focus on eliminating deplorable conditions at youth detention centers, but there's another important task: building an after-care network so these kids don't get into more trouble later on. The state still doesn't have adequate staff or a range of services and treatment programs for troubled teens.

Maryland's adult parole and probation operation, meanwhile, still lacks the staff and other resources to put in place intensive supervision policies. That requires an array of treatment, intervention and training programs.

Bringing down the recidivism rate won't happen without making such an investment.

None of these steps is cheap. But each could have a big impact -- if the governor and state legislators can find the will in the next three months to put surplus funds where they will do the most long-term good.

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