House committee proposes eliminating funds for city's early disposition court

Rawlings threatens cut for Pr. George's schools

March 17, 2002|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

A House of Delegates committee moved yesterday to eliminate funding for Baltimore's early disposition court, a favorite of Mayor Martin O'Malley that has been sharply criticized as a failure by the city's top prosecutor.

The committee's chairman, Del. Howard P. Rawlings, also proposed cutting off the $34.1 million in additional public school funds due to Prince George's County next year if the General Assembly doesn't pass legislation to restructure the system's embattled school board.

In taking $2.5 million from the early disposition court program, committee members said they were convinced of its ineffectiveness by Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy and Judge Martha F. Rasin, former District Court chief.

The court was started at the urging of the mayor as a way to clear the city courts of minor criminal cases by quickly offering attractive plea bargains. But it has been the source of a lengthy public feud between O'Malley and Jessamy.

"When you see something that they all say is not working, why should you continue to put money into it?" asked Del. Joan Cadden, an Anne Arundel County Democrat and chairwoman of the Appropriations public safety subcommittee. "With the tight budget, we decided it was time to cut it off."

Vote on Tuesday night

The actions occurred yesterday during an all-day budget work session of the House Appropriations Committee. The committee intends to vote on a spending plan Tuesday night and send it to the full House this week.

The Senate is set to approve its $21.6 billion budget proposal tomorrow night. Negotiators from the two chambers will need to resolve their differences by April 1.

Like the Senate, the House committee indicated yesterday it supports the 2 percent income tax cut that took effect this year - rejecting a proposal from Gov. Parris N. Glendening to delay it.

House committee members were pleased to learn that state health and budget officials believe they've found $54 million in unclaimed federal funds that can be put toward deficits in Maryland's Mental Hygiene Administration. Those deficits have threatened to cut off payments to many community mental health providers.

The House version of the budget generally follows the lead of the Senate in making deep cuts to environmental preservation programs and higher education - areas that have been top priorities for the governor.

But the House committee appears set to make some significant changes from what is set to be passed by the Senate, including:

Cutting $21.4 million from the University System of Maryland, almost $10 million less that the Senate's reduction. The Senate seeks to limit the universities to the amount they received this year.

Eliminating state aid to nonpublic schools to purchase textbooks. The Senate has approved $4 million of the $5 million proposed by Glendening, contingent on public schools receiving some money for the Thornton Commission's recommendations.

Reducing state aid to private colleges and universities by $8 million, about $3 million more than what was cut by the Senate.

Deleting the entire $1.3 million in general funds for the Community Legacy program, forcing it to rely on state debt for all grants. The Senate only cut $750,000 from the program to help older areas, part of Glendening's Smart Growth initiative.

Restoring much of the funding cut by the Senate to some programs affecting Western Maryland, including $2 million for regional airport service, $32,000 to promote the Canal Place Heritage Area in Cumberland, and $1 million in aid to the community colleges in Garrett and Allegany counties. House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. represents Allegany.

Child support issue

The House committee also is seeking to include language in the budget to thwart a threatened veto from Glendening on continuing the use of a private company to run Baltimore's child support enforcement program. Each chamber has passed its own version of legislation to extend the privatization.

The budget language would permit the state to spend money on child support enforcement only if it is done through a private contractor - raising the possibility of the General Assembly enacting legislation through the budget. The governor cannot veto the budget.

"We are trying to protect the will of the General Assembly here," Rawlings said.

By threatening to cut money to Prince George's for next year, Rawlings puts added pressure on the Senate to approve legislation to restructure the county's school board. Rawlings called the Prince George's board a "national embarrassment" yesterday and said he's frustrated that emergency legislation rushed through the House to strip the board of its powers has stalled in the Senate.

Del. Rushern L. Baker III, the county delegation's chairman and a member of the committee, strongly endorsed the proposal.

"I think you have to send a signal, either you're going to do something for education or you're not," Rawlings said. "What we're saying to the Senate is, `Listen, do your job, dammit!'"

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