Race to the bottom again in Annapolis

October 16, 2005|By C. FRASER SMITH

There's a whiff of payback in a just-below-the surface controversy brewing in Annapolis.

Are you ready for the great BRFA squabble? BRFA sounds like an over-the-counter compound for indigestion. It's an acronym, of course, standing for Budget Reconciliation Financing Act. It's a device for allocating money languishing in state accounts.

The squabble is a disagreement between the General Assembly and the Ehrlich administration over the release of $16 million or so earmarked by BRFA for a variety of health and education programs, including cancer research.

With a state budget of more than $23 billion - and unanticipated revenue of $1.7 billion and climbing - the amount is way less than a drop in the proverbial bucket.

So something else is going on here.

The BRFA would provide $3.5 million in challenge grant funds for schools where the average daily attendance is low, the dropout rate high and scores on state tests low.

Another $6.7 million was allotted to the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins hospitals for cancer research. This money would come from the cigarette restitution fund: millions sent to Maryland by big tobacco for efforts to stop smoking - and to deal with the cancer smoking causes.

There's $1 million to evaluate the cigarette restitution fund spending. Here's a starting point for that evaluation: Cancer research and screening have increased survival rates so that an estimated 3,290 more Maryland cancer patients will survive this year compared with 25 years ago.

The BRFA also would put $1.2 million more in adult literacy programs and $1 million to help pay for textbooks in nonpublic schools.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. apparently wants to see at least some of this money spent. But a spokesman says the hoped-for source is falling short of revenue expectations.

Some items on the BRFA wish list might be covered by reallocating other money. The challenge grants might now be included, but the cancer research funds are not.

If there's a policy concern in all of this, it goes to protection of the executive's almost universal control of spending under the Maryland Constitution. Governors have been unwilling to surrender much, if any, of that authority.

Others say the standoff is philosophical: The governor is not convinced the cancer research spending is the state's responsibility. Cancer research, he and others in his administration have said, should be the province of the federal government. But Mr. Ehrlich's team says he is now fully on board as a supporter of the research. He's put considerable money into building projects, they observe.

The work that goes on inside these buildings, however, is threatened by the current impasse. Doctors, many of them stars in their fields, will be recruited away unless operating funds are available for salaries. One of these physicians developed a drug that dramatically improves the survival rate among breast cancer victims.

Similarly, the challenge grants for education have shown promising results in schools with high dropout rates and low achievement. That program in particular is seen as important to state House Speaker Michael E. Busch.

Here, of course, the plot thickens.

The House has blocked the governor's slot machine bill, and Mr. Busch is blamed - even though many Republicans in the General Assembly have opposed slots, too.

Others say the BRFA bump was created by the governor as payback, not only for Mr. Busch but also for hospitals and health care institutions that did not support him on a medical malpractice bill he vetoed last year. Many of these institutions wanted the malpractice bill and opposed the veto.

This speculation springs from Mr. Ehrlich's own advice: When you don't get your way in Annapolis, get dangerous. He may be practicing what he preaches. If you want your budget requests handled carefully, he's saying, help me. Lobby legislators and speak out in favor of my initiatives - or watch your budget get zeroed out.

Political stalemates such as this one gave rise to a political axiom: "Rule or ruin." It means elevating petty politics to trump the good work government can do.

Has it come to this?

Since when was a governor of Maryland unable to find $6.7 million for something he really wanted?

C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays.

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