Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. rolled out a five-point plan on lead-poisoning prevention yesterday, the second detailed policy initiative of his gubernatorial campaign.
The proposal, which contained some errors and appeared somewhat hastily put together, seeks to privatize the administration of grants for lead paint abatement and give tax credits to people who clean up their properties.
Ehrlich also wants to train more small and minority-owned companies to do abatement work.
Advocates said they are pleased that Ehrlich is addressing the problem, but are wary of some of his ideas, particularly the notion of privatization.
Ehrlich, who will likely face Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend for governor in November, says lead poisoning is a topic that has concerned him throughout his career. "We talk about education reforms and about different ideas of where to spend on schools, but if the kids are poisoned, they don't have a shot," the Baltimore County congressman said.
But Johns Hopkins University political scientist Matthew Crenson said the proposal looked like a transparent appeal to black voters.
"It certainly resonates in the inner city of Baltimore. It's an important issue, and he's aiming at those voters," said Crenson, adding that lead poisoning is not a subject generally associated with Republican politicians.
"He never talked about it before," Crenson said. "It's not an issue that really affects the Republican constituency in the state, because most of them are in the suburbs."
Townsend issued a blistering statement, calling his plan "an election year epiphany" and promoting her leadership on the issue as lieutenant governor. She plans to release her lead-poisoning prevention initiative next month.
"Now, all of a sudden, Bob Ehrlich has a lead paint program," the statement read. "But he is late on this issue - we needed his help in the trenches, not on the campaign trail."
According to Ruth Ann Norton, executive director of the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, about 3,000 Baltimore children are exposed each year to dangerous levels of lead, making Baltimore one of the most lead-polluted cities in the nation.
Much of what Ehrlich proposes, she said, has been put in motion by the Glendening administration, which has invested $14.5 million during the past three years in lead abatement. Enforcement actions against landlords have jumped from 150 in fiscal year 2000 to 509 in fiscal year 2002.
Ehrlich's proposal calls for fully funding a $5 million lead abatement program by 2005. However, that money has been appropriated in the current budget, said Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat who sits on the House Appropriations Committee and is a General Assembly expert on lead poisoning.
Ehrlich also wants to speed the process by which the Department of Housing and Community Development distributes abatement grants by privatizing administration of the money.
But Norton and others, including attorney Lisa J. Smith, whose Baltimore law firm sues landlords of lead-poisoned children, say that prospect is potentially troubling.
"You have to worry about privatization because the chances for fraud are increased," Smith said. Norton agrees. "The [property] owners have been waiting to get their hands on this," she said. "We would want to keep a very careful eye to make sure anybody giving out the grants would not be conflicted by any associations with people who might be receiving those abatement grants."
Ehrlich also proposes a pilot program to begin in 2005 that would give a maximum of 500 property owners a $1,000 tax credit for getting lead out of their houses. Ridding a house of lead paint typically costs between $7,500 and $15,000.
Although the tax program is relatively small, Ehrlich says he is acutely aware that the state might be unable to afford anything more generous. Similarly, he plans to hire more property inspectors and attorneys to beef up enforcement of lead abatement laws - without using any new money.
Another "revenue-neutral" plank of the proposal is to have the state Department of the Environment train small and minority-owned businesses to perform lead abatement.
Currently, outside companies conduct the certified training. Richard W. Collins, who runs the department's lead program, said his agency couldn't take over the training without more staff. "We'd need a small army of people," he said - a notion that Ehrlich rejected.
Absent from the proposal is whether Ehrlich supports having the state attorney general sign on to a lawsuit against paint companies, or whether he would agree to a more stringent testing standard based on lead dust rather than paint chips - issues that advocates say are crucial to combating poisoning.
Yesterday, Ehrlich said he probably would oppose a class action lawsuit. "I'm inclined to put money in the houses rather than in the pockets of particular people," he said.
As for lead dust, he said, "That should be left to the scientists, not the politicians."