Democrats' surrender creates one-party state

March 03, 2002|By C. Fraser Smith

DO WE still have a two-party system in Maryland? We have a GOP. But where are the grand old Democrats?

Helping to print fund-raising tickets for this year's campaign?

Pouting over redistricting?

Standing proudly behind tax cuts?

Booking reservations for the ACC basketball tournament?

Forgetting to be the party of the cities, the workers and the have-nots?

Seems like.

You can see this odd rush to one-party politics in Annapolis where the General Assembly moves into the zone of tough budget decisions.

With less money to hand around, the Assembly's fiscal leadership - all Democrats - is contemplating an array of solutions that range from tapping the $500 million rainy day fund and risking loss of the AAA bond rating to depending on a quick settlement of Peter Angelos' tobacco fee. The latter would free $130 million or so and make the budget process so much easier.

Neither solution would make them look like Democrats.

What they're not doing is asking Marylanders to accept their party's historic commitment to government as problem solver. Instead, they're buying into the conservative mantra that government usually makes a mess of things and isn't worthy of more trust - or more tax money.

Democrats keep moving themselves to the center of the political spectrum, away from programs that were once the foundation of their party and toward the GOP, which claims it knows this state's collective heart. Democrats seem to agree.

For his own reasons, Gov. Parris N. Glendening urged Assembly leaders to postpone or cancel the final installment of a 10 percent income tax cut. They have declined - even as some of them privately predict the need for a tax increase next year.

It's a whopper of a political shell game: We keep our promises to the voters, so here's your tax cut. We'll talk later about meeting health care requirements, making educational funding fair, pursuing urban redevelopment, assisting with crimefighting, transportation and other needs.

If we need more money - one year after we "honored" a tax cut - we'll ask for it then.

Someone may find that sequence misleading or felonious, but it has this virtue: Voters will have four years before the 2006 election to forget.

What the Democrats fear is voter backlash if they renege. And, certainly, they would have to make the case that Maryland needs the $177 million more than individuals need the $75 a typical taxpayer will get back. Public officials ought to teach, to illuminate and to speak hard truths. That's what you do when leading is more important than getting elected.

So let us count some of the initiatives that will wither or die in this year's rush toward a one-party Maryland:

Up to half the governor's proposed $15 million in new spending for drug treatment, including $9 million for Baltimore, where Democrats turn for votes to offset Republican strength in the suburbs. The state's support has helped Baltimore lead cities nationwide in their effort to reduce drug-related emergency room admissions and the rate of reduction of violent crime.

The budget may also be passed without $1.7 million provided last year to the city state's attorney in Baltimore for prosecuting gun crimes. Baltimore has the nation's highest incidence of juvenile gun violence.

The absence of the $177 million means a cut in money for abatement of lead paint poisoning, which causes irremediable damage to young brains. Many of the victims are offspring of black inner city Democrats, the party's most loyal members. This program, too, was showing great promise. Who will defend it? Other than Mayor Martin O'Malley?

Surely every worthy project cannot be funded this year, nor can current programs escape some trimming. But the cuts now proposed need not be so deep.

Too bad so few Democrats are willing to make that point often and with passion. In time, they may have trouble answering when people ask, "Why are you a Democrat?"

There could be a political price to pay, too. How will Democrats distinguish themselves from Republicans in elections? By saying they're the incumbents?

Commentators have lamented the absence of creative, cleansing ferment that would occur in Maryland if there were two vibrant parties.

Because they've been out of power, the Republicans were thought to be the missing piece.

What a curious evolution, then, for Maryland to become a one-party enclave - as Democrats surrender their precious leadership franchise.

C. Fraser Smith is an editorial writer for The Sun.

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