State's Democrats

progressive, prudent

May 01, 2002|By Maggie McIntosh

ONLY ALAN Greenspan has declared the recession over.

Democrats, who have the job of governing in Annapolis and must rely on verifiable state revenue estimates, cannot make such a declaration. And, unlike Congress, Maryland's Constitution requires a balanced budget. We demonstrated fiscal restraint while giving tax relief to the public during the last legislative session. Unlike the federal tax cut, which focused on upper-income individuals and multimillion-dollar estates, ours was across the board to our middle-income families and poorest citizens.

Democrats left Annapolis on track to fulfill our promise to poor working families, many of whom have just moved from welfare to work, by increasing the earned income tax credit. For a family with two or more children that is earning minimum wage, this means a maximum of $4,000 in federal and $600 in state returned income. We also gave welfare families a small, but significant, cost-of-living increase.

We set the following priorities this session: to continue our commitment to public education, the environment and health care and to provide a safety net for those citizens who most need our help. We provided a historic 72 percent increase in K-12 education funding over the past eight years.

We passed the Thornton Commission formula that for Baltimore City public schools eventually will mean $258 million in additional annual funding. Each Maryland county will move into the future acknowledging that every child, regardless of economic status, can have equal access to an adequate education.

While CareFirst dominated Annapolis hearings, we added more than $430 million to Medicaid and $62 million to mental health, expanded the Prescription Discount Program to 30,000 seniors and maintained the Maryland Children's Health Program for working families to provide health insurance coverage for pregnant women and 100,000 children who otherwise would not have health coverage.

The legislature raised the cigarette tax to $1 a pack. We hope the increased tax will serve to deter teen-agers from starting to smoke and encourage all age groups to stop smoking. Maryland has one of the highest incidences of cancer. This tax is much more than a gimmick to fund education; it is good public health policy. These and other accomplishments in voter restoration and civil rights demonstrate a very progressive and successful agenda.

A final point: If the legislature had deferred the final portion of the income tax cut, would it have funded mental health, the Thornton formula, tax credits to hire felons and job training? No. Those are ongoing programs, and a deferral would result in only one year of funds, leaving a new legislature and administration to take office with a spending base much higher than revenues. Democrats kept social and justice programs together through a year in which other states decimated services.

We did not have to take these harsh actions because we used the high revenues of the '90s economic boom to fund one-time projects such as school construction, higher education facilities and infrastructure, which helped us avoid the over-expansion of ongoing programs. Wisely, we added to our reserves and rainy day funds.

Did we resolve how to pay for Thornton or fully fund community mental health this session? No, but we made progress in mental health along with several proposals that will top our agenda for the next session. We gave the next legislature a responsible path to funding Thornton. We know that there is no easy answer, like "slots for tots." In fact, no revenue study for legalized gambling comes close to funding education.

Maryland Democrats are committed to finding these answers through shaping new priorities in the next administration, improving the way we are spending current resources and by looking at our fiscal structure and making studied decisions about how to move forward.

Maggie McIntosh is majority leader of the Maryland House of Delegates, 42nd District, Baltimore City and Baltimore County.

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