This Christmas, an appeal for gifts that keep on giving

December 25, 2005|By C. FRASER SMITH

Dear Santa,

I'm writing to support two important wish lists. I know you don't need reminding, but there's an ailment out there worse than avian flu. I'm talking about "donor fatigue." I hope it hasn't gotten as far as the North Pole. But it's out there, so your job is doubly difficult.

Anyway, here are the lists. They're quite short, actually. Just one item.

Five million dollars. Apiece. Yes, Santa, $5 million each.

Here's what they tell me. "It's really not a lot of money in the scheme of things."

We do understand that everyone who comes to you with a request for money is likely to say something similar.

But hear us out.

If there were just $5 million more in the community mental health budget this year and $5 million more automatically in the years to come, the state would get another $5 million a year absolutely free each year from the federal government. It's called matching money. I bet there aren't many Christmas lists that come with a matching aspect.

And before you mention it, let me say I realize the request is for more than $5 million. But you know what they say in Annapolis: The out years will take care of themselves.

But here's the really important information. Unlike doctors and nursing homes and managed care organizations, the community mental health system does not get cost-of-living increases for its employees. As a result, salaries are 15 percent to 25 percent below wages paid for similar work in other state agencies. As an employer, you know what I mean. It's hard to keep the elves cranking out toy trains for that kind of money.

And keep in mind that a more attractive salary schedule for these workers would pay off in ways especially pleasing to one as kind-hearted and truly compassionate as you. The mentally ill live this life with great difficulty - and great spirit. A little help keeps them out of the dreary and infinitely more costly state institutions and in the community, where they make many contributions.

I would make a similar appeal on behalf of another worthy group. They run the state's adult education programs. Santa, Maryland ranks pretty low among the states when it comes to the level of support for adult education.

We're a very wealthy state - third in median household income. Still, we don't put enough money in adult education programs to help those who want and need it. They know they let themselves down, but they're eager to get back in the game. A little boost, Santa, would help. (P.S. I don't think they would be any competition. You've got so much seniority.)

Finally, I realize there are many worthy would-be recipients of $5 million or so. They'll all be pointing to a budget surplus when they say it's really not a lot of money. A lot of these requests are just as important. I leave the choosing in your wise hands. But I'm thinking the demand is enough to provoke some serious consideration of a tax increase. Maybe we could call it a compassion fee. Spread out across the Free State, it really wouldn't be a lot of money.

I know I'm late with all this.

So if you're tapped out, maybe you could forward this message to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. He's a man of conservative bent, so he might be amenable to the savings argument. A few million up front could save a lot down the road - and since we are stepping off into the maelstrom of a campaign, he might be willing to see our point about how much good can be done by worthy government programs and how much can be saved.

I know you're not into politics, so I'll send copies of this message to Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley. We could use a little issue conversation over the next few months.

A little conversation would be good, and it wouldn't cost a lot in the scheme of things.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays. His e-mail is fsmith@wypr.org.

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