Time to save kids from political crossfire

Posturing: A dispute over contamination standards and state aid further damages victims.

March 21, 2002

Aren't lead-poisoned kids damaged enough by the environments in which they live? What a shame that political games are being played with a program that could ease their pain. And what an unlikely set of combatants.

Del. Samuel I. "Sandy" Rosenberg of Baltimore, who has spent much of his legislative career fighting for lead-safe houses, now threatens to withhold $250,000 in lead abatement funds otherwise earmarked for the city. The reason: He says Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley reneged on a promise to endorse legislation that would force landlords to deal with lead dust in their apartments before renting.

In the parlance of Annapolis, this is called "sending a message." The message here: Do it my way or pay. But here's the real message: More children will remain in lead-infested houses if these men don't settle their disagreement.

Mr. Rosenberg's bill puts Maryland in conformity with federal standards for lead-dust levels. Mr. O'Malley calls it an empty, "feel good" measure he never promised to support.

"I cannot affirmatively support measures that would more harshly regulate rental property owners in the name of lead paint abatement in the same year that the state is cutting funding for lead paint abatement," the mayor said in a letter to Mr. Rosenberg.

Legislative committees have indeed cut $1 million of the $3.5 million slated for Baltimore lead abatement efforts this year, and Delegate Rosenberg now threatens to cut more. Let's hope he doesn't mean it.

The mayor has been a positive force for controlling lead poisoning and pursuing delinquent landlords since he took office. Hardly any enforcement occurred in the 12 years before he took office.

But he's very wrong on this one. He ought to immediately embrace the proposal of his legislative ally, Mr. Rosenberg - "feel good" bill or not. Any gain against a toxin that profoundly damages children is a gain we need.

That point was made poignantly in a story Wednesday by The Sun's Heather Dewar. Tougher regulations, more aggressive enforcement and a public-health education effort might have spared 21-month-old Cameron Roberts an almost fatal exposure to lead.

So the mayor should relent on this one, and Mr. Rosenberg, we trust, will not play tough guy in the newspapers until the money is lost.

This is an unseemly squabble that falls below the level of performance we expect from both men. They'll want to put children first now as they have in the past.

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