County executive favors funding over GOP slogans

September 03, 2004|By MICHAEL OLESKER

ON THE day before George W. Bush's address to the nation, Baltimore County Executive Jim Smith sits in a Towson restaurant and mulls over the curious Alice in Wonderland disconnect between the Republican convention as it preens before its fun-house mirror and life as it is actually lived in the rest of America.

The tone of the convention could not be more self-congratulatory unless it were Democratic. That's the nature of political conventions. Everybody at the Republican convention talks about the president's great leadership abilities. Nobody breathes a syllable about where this great leadership has actually taken the country: into devastating war and the creation of a new generation of enraged terrorists, into the worst employment numbers since the time of Herbert Hoover, into lavish tax cuts for the rich that the rest of the country is supposed to be too dim to notice on their way to the poorhouse.

Smith knows how these things work. He's a Democrat, and he saw his own party's lush political choreography a month ago. John Kerry looked like a hero then, and now he looks like somebody afraid to express a clear opinion in public. But it's the Republicans running the country now, so Smith is asked what he'd like to hear George W. Bush talk about in his speech to the nation.

It brings up the disconnect. For four years, says Smith, the whole country has heard about George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind school initiatives, one of the tenets of this president's "compassionate conservatism."

"They're great at talking about it," Smith says, "but bad at funding it. We haven't gotten a dime to support No Child Left Behind. Not a dime. It's a political agenda, not a presidential agenda. It gives places like Baltimore County the obligation on schools, but not the ability to make it work. They get the slogan, we get the bill."

The words come a little uneasily to him. Smith is a measured, diplomatic man who spent much of his career as a judge. He is not a verbal bomb-thrower. If they put him on one of those broadcast talk shows, he'd get swallowed up in everybody else's sounds.

But he heads his county in a nervous economic time when Washington routinely passes the buck. The White House holds the line on taxes by dumping everything it can on the states. And the governor of this state, wishing to hold his own line on taxes, dumps whatever he can on municipalities.

This way, Washington looks fiscally responsible (if you disregard the federal budget surplus magically transformed into a $5 trillion deficit) and Annapolis looks fiscally responsible (the governor holds the line on taxes by calling them "fees") while the cities and counties get strangled.

"What I'd like to hear from the president," Smith says now, "is talk about tax incentives, about all these jobs being out-sourced overseas. We have to have jobs for people. I'd like to hear him talk about more police aid for this whole region. Bush cut $150 million in federal aid to police. I'd like to hear him talk about money for education, about kids who are in trouble."

Baltimore County, he says, has 2,400 kids living in group homes. That's more than the rest of the state combined. They come from every municipality in the state, because there are more nonprofits operating group homes in Baltimore County.

But they're troubled kids - some with criminal backgrounds, almost all with troubled family histories - who become part of the county's public school system.

"We have a good school system," Smith says. "But not across the whole county. Not in some of the older neighborhoods, where a lot of these kids land. The buildings are old, and they're so short of social workers and psychologists that we don't even know these kids' records."

It brings him back to Washington's under-funded No Child Left Behind - and to Maryland's ambitious Thornton education plan.

"The consistent message from Annapolis," he says, "is how they backed Thornton. But that's only part of the school situation. In Baltimore County, we have the second-oldest school buildings in the state. So we have a five-year, $400 million plan to renovate them and bring them into the 21st century.

"But, last year, we got $11 million from the Ehrlich administration for this. The previous administration set aside $250 million for statewide school construction. This administration cut it to $117 million."

So it goes in the political disconnect. Smith says he has called Ehrlich for face-to-face meetings. Called at least half a dozen times, he says. It's the same complaint he had at last winter's General Assembly session. Never, says Smith, has the governor called him back.

"In fact," says Smith, "I've called three times in the last three weeks. He doesn't call back."

It's part of a pattern. In New York, there's a disconnect between the rhetoric and life beyond the convention hall. In Annapolis, it's as simple as keeping the phone disconnected.

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