Fifteen days remain for General Assembly

Agenda: As days dwindle, here's where lawmakers in Annapolis stand on priority issues.

March 25, 2001

THERE haven't been fireworks in Annapolis during the current 90-day session. But that doesn't mean lawmakers have been twiddling their thumbs.

On the contrary, this has been a workmanlike meeting of the Maryland General Assembly, with substantial progress on important measures.

Two months ago, we listed our top priorities for the legislature and governor. With 15 days left in the 2001 session, it's time to take another peek at where matters stand. The scorecard looks pretty good -- so far:

Early childhood education. Budget constraints mean a slimmed-down version of the governor's $30 million commitment to a child's early years of learning. Still, it's a good start. Unfortunately, the governor failed to provide funds for all-day kindergarten. That's a blow to kids living in impoverished communities.

Mass transit. Gov. Parris N. Glendening came through with a five-year, $750 million plan that would make Baltimore's public transportation more viable. Once again, cutbacks are needed because of the governor's bloated budget submission. But the bulk of transit funds will survive, which is good for the entire region.

Drug treatment. Half-a-loaf, with the promise of a full loaf next year, should cheer Mayor Martin O'Malley. The governor committed to an extra $8 million for the city's drug programs in 2001 and $9 million more in 2002. County drug programs will be able to add more treatment slots, too. Lawmakers are strongly supportive.

The extra money should mean another 1,500 treatment slots in Baltimore, which has an estimated 60,000 drug users.

Juvenile justice. The governor failed to give this agency enough funds to immediately shift to a community-based treatment system, but there is $3.5 million to begin the process, plus $1.3 million to hire 45 more mental health/substance abuses caseworkers.

The big news was an agreement to close the scandal-plagued Cheltenham Youth Facility in Prince George's County in two years. That schedule needs to be accelerated, though, with any savings shifted to community-based aftercare programs for delinquent teen-agers.

Parole and probation. The governor's budget calls for 67 new field agents and 11 more supervisors. That should help launch an enhanced community-supervision program. But it will take more personnel to make this important effort succeed in future years.

Election reforms. Lawmakers should give the state election board power to select a new, electronic voting system for all Maryland jurisdictions. The governor and lawmakers must come up with the $7 million it will take to lease this equipment in time for next year's elections.

Health care. Legislators are scrambling to jury-rig a prescription-drug subsidy program for the elderly poor. Care must be taken, though, because of the enormous potential future costs.

Budgetary constraints make it unlikely that one goal of House leaders -- providing medical coverage to parents of Medicaid-eligible children -- can happen this year.

Drunken driving. The House Judiciary Committee and chairman Joseph Vallario remain adamant in their efforts to kill bills aimed at getting tough with alcoholic drivers. Only under extreme pressure did they yield on lowering the legal threshold for conviction.

That's not good enough. The legislature should also approve stiffer penalties for repeat offenders -- with or without the support of Mr. Vallario's misguided committee.

Gay rights. A watered-down bill looks as if it will make it through the General Assembly this year to bar discrimination against gays and lesbians in employment and housing. It's about time.

Lobbying reforms. Lawmakers achieved an early victory with easy approval of a bill requiring the licensing of lobbyists, forcing more disclosure of how they spend their money and setting tough penalties for wayward lobbyists. Bravo!

In the next eight days, lawmakers must wrap up their budget work, including a proposed tax amnesty that would generate $50 million or more of one-time revenue. That should help close gaps where the governor has fallen short, but the money should not be used to bolster programs.

By the April 9 adjournment, we expect more success stories. The job of hammering out workable laws acceptable to 188 members has gone well so far. The hardest days, though, loom ahead.

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