Unfinished business

April 02, 2003

BECAUSE THE General Assembly and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. have rejected significant tax increases, valuable programs will undergo deep budget cuts this year.

Among the targets: children's health insurance, higher education and mental health - all worthy of preserving at the current level of support.

Even more damage can be avoided if the Assembly addresses a variety of issues still pending in one or both houses. They range from charter schools to historic preservation tax credits to gun violence.

Many are matters of life and death, affecting the most vulnerable among us.

A proposal known as Project Exile could be enacted if the parties were focused on the problem: a horrendous murder toll of up to 300 a year in Baltimore. Governor Ehrlich wants a Maryland version of Project Exile - where stiff sentences are enforced - but his bill languishes in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

The committee chairman, Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, wants the bill to include jail time for gun owners who don't report stolen weapons. Governor Ehrlich wants a $100 fine for violators. With so many lives at stake, is compromise possible?

With the same goal in mind, the Assembly should restore a cut of $1 million in the Baltimore state's attorney's office. That money would pay for prosecutors to pursue gun cases. Law enforcement and tough sentencing laws will be meaningless if the cases can't be taken to court quickly.

The Assembly might help divert young people from crime if it helped to improve the quality of public schools, the goal of a charter schools bill. Passage would allow Maryland to tap into a $200 million federal fund for charter startups, another Ehrlich administration priority.

Higher education is in jeopardy, too. It stands to lose as much as $40 million more in the final days - above and beyond the $67 million cut made by the Ehrlich administration in its initial budget proposal. The House calls for a $40 million hit while the Senate wants $2 million. No further cut would be the right course.

Three critically important health issues remain to be dealt with as well:

The Assembly should find ways to avoid eliminating children from a progressive health insurance program. Further cuts could deny coverage to thousands.

County-based agencies that coordinate mental health treatment throughout the state could lose as much as a third of their $9 million budget. That could be ruinous.

And legislators still have an opportunity to help parents of severely mentally ill children, who sometimes must relinquish custody of their kids to get them services. Surely this situation is intolerable in a state as wealthy as Maryland.

In one important area, at least, the Assembly could serve the people well by doing nothing this year. Some legislators want to kill the historic preservation tax credit bill, a valuable redevelopment tool in Baltimore and elsewhere. Ending the program, which represents a wise investment, might not save money - and it could hurt.

Despite expectations of a ballooning deficit, the Assembly can find ways to address most, if not all, of these problems.

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