Power and the party

April 15, 2002

MARYLAND Democrats left Annapolis last week confident they had slipped past economic hard times virtually unscathed.

As they head into a season of campaigning, they can point to many accomplishments, including the economic good health of most Marylanders. We're a wealthy state: At $51,695, our median household income ranks first in the nation, a figure Democrats will trumpet as proof of their good stewardship.

But for a party that likes to think of itself as progressive, lately the Democrats have seemed more interested in being called conservative. More Democrats ought to ask themselves the question posed by Robert P. Casey, the late Democratic governor of Pennsylvania: "What did you do when you had the power?"

Did you, for example, try to solve the truly difficult - and expensive - problems, the ones that plague the powerless?

Did you dare to spend money where it's needed - in the amounts needed - or did you dilute the effect of your spending by distributing it broadly to buy support among your own party members? That's what happened in Annapolis this year in the matter of education aid.

Did you insist on adequate funding for community mental health programs? When will workers in these programs get pay that approximates the pay of state workers - who themselves have been left with no raises recently? When will Democrats dare to evaluate the entire mental health system, and close dysfunctional and costly state hospitals?

Instead, they passed a budget that gives community programs only a few months of support. Watch for more crisis in that quarter.

What if Assembly Democrats had the courage to say, "We aren't going to fund the last year of the income tax cut because the $177 million that will cost is needed to end suffering"?

What if some of that same $177 million had been made available to fund the Thornton Commission education aid formulas, which triumphantly were passed without a source of support after the first two years?

Why didn't the state use more of its huge welfare reform savings to train former recipients who are now struggling to support themselves and their children at the lowest-end jobs? Why doesn't that subject get more attention in this Democratic state?

A proposal to offer tax credits to employers who hire ex-felons failed this year. Thousands of such men and women come back to communities all over the state every year with far too little support. Why don't Democrats suggest a new look at parole and probation and at the post-correctional transition to communities?

We all know the answer: These things cost money and they're politically dangerous. To be a truly progressive state, though, leaders need to lead - to talk about the state's common problems.

The Democrats did pass a tax study bill, hoping it will show how the Thornton Commission and other real needs can be met.

But we know the answer there, too. The people of Maryland must be asked to support programs that address the inescapable problems of life, demanding results and accountability, to be sure.

At the end of the political day, political power unused is a political crime. Making everybody happy doesn't make you progressive.

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