Here's what counts in the State House

Top priorities: Budget is focus of legislature, but other issues deserve attention this session, too.

January 28, 2001

NOW MARYLAND'S 188 state lawmakers can get to work. They've heard the governor list his priorities in the State of the State address and they have glanced at the 1,000-plus pages of budget detail describing how he wants to spend $21 billion of taxpayer money.

One thing is clear: Lawmakers and the governor don't see eye to eye on this year's budget.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening's blueprint is $209 million higher than the General Assembly's spending cap, yet budget analysts say it fails to include $350 million in ongoing state government expenses.

It's a budget balanced in a technical and constitutional sense, but not in terms of common sense.

Leaders of the House and Senate are in agreement that despite the governor's worthy budget goals, major cuts must be made. Getting that done could be messy.

Yet the budget committees must persevere. They have a duty to keep the governor from embraking on a spending spree that could have severe ramifications in future years.

At the same time, they must take care not to deny funds to programs with urgent needs. They also must create additional room in the budget for other priorities.

Here are our chief concerns:

Early Childhood Education. The governor's $30 million commitment is a promising first step to focus more education resources on the critical early years in a child's learning experience. Additional funds for all-day kindergarten in impoverished communities need to be found.

Mass Transit. Belatedly, the governor is waking up to the lack of adequate public transit in the Baltimore region. Planning money for new routes must be preserved, along with other funds to give mass transit a boost.

Parole and Probation. Money to hire 108 probation officers must be approved, along with $22.5 million in technology funds to move this agency and the rest of the pubic-safety department fully into the information age. Lessening probation officers' case loads is imperative.

Juvenile Justice. Reinventing this department is a key budget objective. That includes fixing woeful conditions at youth penal facilities. Far more important, though, is the $5 million to start improving an ineffective community-based after-care system.

Election Reforms. There's no money in the governor's budget to help counties buy modern, fail-safe voting machines. Given the Florida fiasco in November, Maryland cannot delay in ridding counties of antiquated punch-card voting systems.

Health care for poor parents. House leaders have made broader medical coverage a top goal. But freeing up enough budget money won't be easy. Still, it makes dollar-sense and health-sense to provide parents of Medicaid children with medical coverage.

Other issues don't have budget implications, but they cry out for affirmative legislative action. Three issues are especially worthy of passage this session:

Drunk Driving. Leaders must finally stand up to powerful trial-lawyer/legislators and lobbyists who have blocked past efforts to get tough with drunks on the road. Now federal highway funds could be at risk.

The threshold for drunk-driving must be lowered, penalties for repeat offenders stiffened and open alcohol consumption in cars banned.

Gay Rights. Housing and employment discrimination based on sexual orientation is unacceptable, even barbaric. Legislators should prohibit such bigoted behavior. It's a no-brainer.

Lobbyist Reforms. Licensing lobbyists -- and getting tough with those who damage the integrity of the legislative process -- could do much to restore luster to the General Assembly's public image.

But will Maryland lawmakers have the courage to put teeth in this proposed statute, and give the State Ethics Commission the funds it needs to police lobbyists' behavior?

This session would be a failure if state legislators fail to rein-in lobbyists.

A federal judge already has condemned the "culture of corruption" that lawmakers permit to flourish in the State House. Now is the time to start changing that permissive climate.

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