Steele asks ministers to aid budget fight

He urges congregations to oppose amendment

General Assembly

March 23, 2004|By Johnathon E. Briggs | Johnathon E. Briggs,SUN STAFF

Calling a proposed budget amendment a "direct affront" to the Ehrlich administration's efforts to help religious groups obtain grants for social programs, Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele urged a gathering of ministers in West Baltimore yesterday to rally their congregations against the measure.

Senators amended the governor's budget bill to prevent funding for the creation of a Governor's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. The Senate's view is that such an office must first be authorized by an act of the General Assembly.

The office, endorsed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. during his 2002 run for governor, would help faith-based groups obtain government resources for community programs, ranging from helping the homeless to providing day care.

"Stand up with me and the governor to help us beat back this drive," Steele said yesterday in his remarks to the weekly meeting of the Baptist Ministers Conference of Baltimore and Vicinity at New Shiloh Baptist Church. "This amendment, in my view, is something we have to rally against."

Steele then invited the ministers to join him at 10 a.m. today for a rally on the State House steps, and he urged them to call on their local legislators to help defeat the amendment in the House of Delegates. Steele said he has also asked Del. Norman H. Conway, a Wicomico County Democrat and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, to strike the amendment.

The legislature's chief fiscal analyst, Warren G. Deschenaux, said the language doesn't prevent faith-based groups from participating in state programs. He said that what concerns some legislators is the idea of providing funding for an office whose function has not been defined through legislation.

"It's something they have been talking about vigorously, and the concept is not a bad idea. But it should be embodied in legislation," Deschenaux said. The Senate's amendment, he added, was intended to force the Ehrlich administration to introduce a bill that outlines the scope of the office.

Said Deschenaux: "Tell us what you want to do before you take the money and do it."

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, seven states have offices for faith-based initiatives or an appointed liaison to the faith community. In 2002, former Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend launched a Faith Partnership Initiative to train those affiliated with faith-based groups on the best ways to obtain government funding.

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