Ehrlich plan for agency assailed

Democrats urge year delay, bill with specifics to create faith-based initiative office

Plan was presented in budget

Legislators question scope, autonomy to allocate funds

April 05, 2004|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

Democratic lawmakers say Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. should wait until next year to establish his proposed Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, a stance that could set back one of his policy priorities.

Democrats question the need for the agency when the state has been giving various religious groups assistance for decades. Moreover, they said the office's scope needs clarification and that it should be clearly established in an individual bill, not in the state budget submitted to the General Assembly as Ehrlich did this year.

"There wasn't a bill," said Speaker Pro Tem and Baltimore County Del. Adrienne A. Jones.

"People need to make sure they know what they're getting," Jones said. "You know that saying, `If it sounds too good to be true it probably is?' That's the case here."

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said the problem is that the administration made a proposal that would have given the new agency free rein over how state money is doled out to religious groups without any scrutiny by the General Assembly.

"There should be oversight into how state money is spent," Miller said.

The administration is optimistic that it can revive the proposal before the legislative session ends April 12. Lawmakers will discuss the proposal as part of a conference committee on the budget that is expected to convene next week.

Taking a page from President Bush's faith-based initiative plan, Ehrlich wants to establish an agency to help faith-based groups obtain government resources for community programs offering services such as helping the homeless and providing day care.

Throughout his 2002 campaign for governor, Ehrlich said faith-based programs would be a major initiative of his administration.

"We believe that faith-based institutions are a legitimate provider of human services," said Paul E. Schurick, an Ehrlich spokesman. "We're working with the Senate president and the speaker of the House to engage the religious community."

Ehrlich and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, who is leading the faith-based effort, recently held a State House rally with dozens of clergy to show support for the proposal. Supporters of the plan also voiced opposition to a Senate budget amendment that would have blocked its creation.

Because the amendment emerged from the Senate, some have argued that Miller is using the issue for political purposes.

One of the administration's point men on faith-based issues is the Rev. John Heath, a former staff member in Miller's office who left the Democratic Party during the 2002 campaign and registered as a Republican.

But the Senate president said his opposition to the agency has to do with fiscal oversight, not political retribution.

"John Heath is not a factor," he said.

New Jersey is the only one of the seven states that have offices for faith-based initiatives that gives the agency authority to issue grants, according to Courtney Harrison, a policy specialist with the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Jones, chairwoman of the House Capital Budget subcommittee, said the state has given religious groups money through such methods as bond bills that are reviewed by the legislature. She said she believes that system has worked.

"I'd rather direct the money through what we have already been doing," Jones said.

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