The Assembly's challenge

January 08, 2003

AS MARYLAND legislators convene today in Annapolis, it bears repeating what their first order of business is: Confronting the $1.8 billion budget deficit for this year and next.

Delegates and senators must solve immense financial problems without making government more dependent on gambling, without disrupting critically important programs and without killing valuable momentum achieved in recent years on public secondary and higher education, crime-fighting, environmental protection and many other fronts.

The General Assembly ought to begin by scheduling hearings on an array of revenue sources - yes, tax proposals. A surtax on the wealthiest income-tax payers or broadening the sales tax are alternatives that should be carefully considered.

Hearings on revenue-raising alternatives should begin immediately even as Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. prepares to offer his own budget-balancing proposal: slot machines at the racetracks. Once legislators see their options, they should kill the slots legislation. Government must be paid for by all the citizens.

The Assembly will not be successful unless it balances the budget in a responsible way - and accomplishes a number of other objectives in areas from health care to law enforcement. For those who follow the Assembly's activities - and everyone should - here's a checklist of essential actions:

Environment - Protect the Glendening administration's Smart Growth incentives. Look for creative ways to maintain state land-preservation funds and increase funding for Chesapeake Bay cleanup efforts by improving wastewater and sewer systems.

Public safety - Maintain and increase drug treatment funding ($25 million) for Baltimore, where progress against illegal drug sales has helped reduce violent crime. Provide more money for residential drug treatment programs. Include funding for DNA testing.

Health care - Provide sufficient funding for community mental health clinics. Approve a fee to be added to insurance policies to provide $18 million for trauma surgeons. Reject the proposed for-profit conversion and sale of CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield. Continue funding for lead paint abatement.

Death penalty - Take action on the findings of a commission that studied the equitability of the death penalty. Preliminary reports suggest the study will say race plays a nefarious role in deciding who lives or dies in Maryland's criminal justice system, and that's unacceptable.

Education - Fully fund the Thornton Commission's recommendations. Provide sufficient higher-education funding to continue the University System of Maryland's momentum toward national status.

Transportation - Proceed with the Intercounty Connector highway in Montgomery County. Approve a gas tax increase. Proceed with a study of the Baltimore regional transportation system.

Economic development - Continue the state's commitment to Baltimore's biotech park ($7 million) and to the west-side project ($5 million). Maintain or increase the value of the historic preservation tax credits.

A state as wealthy as Maryland - one with a progressive tradition of caring government - should be able to handle these needs. But it will require a legislature of will and vision.

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