Bob, Mount Washington: [Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley] proclaims a drop of 40 percent in violent crime and progress in [the] school system, yet the murder rate [is] still quite high and it seems there is a weekly report of some financial or educational scandal in the school system. Since he said previous administrations "cooked the books" on crime, why isn't his record examined by an independent commission rather than accepting his word?

Nitkin: I asked Doug Donovan, one of our City Hall reporters, to answer this question and the next one.

From Donovan: Some people have asked for an independent audit of police statistics. The mayor's response has been that the records are publicly available to anyone who would like to review them. The city conducts its own audits routinely and has corrected their own numbers before. And the drop in crime is consistent with national trends.

Baltimore remains the second-most violent city, the same ranking it had six years ago, and that has raised eyebrows in context with the city's progress. But it is possible to make progress on crime and still be a very dangerous city, since the city started from such a low point.

Mary Beth, Baltimore: With recent TV coverage and outcries from the public on the Baltimore Police Department, when will there be an audit of the police department and its statistics? Wouldn't it be proper to include Peter O'Malley, brother of the mayor, and his apparent conflict of interest in setting up and running the system that compiles the city's statistics? Why isn't there more reporting on Peter O'Malley's connection to the police's statistics?

Again, from Donovan: Peter O'Malley has no connection to the system that examines police statistics. He worked for the city from June 2000 to June 2002 under an Abell Foundation grant of $77,000 that was requested by the mayor's office. His job was to help establish CitiStat, a pioneering system that measures the performance of city agencies by meticulously examining vital statistics from those departments on a biweekly basis and holding managers accountable.

The system that tracks police statistics, called ComStat, is an entirely separate system that predates the O'Malley administration and has had no connection to Peter O'Malley.

John A. Bell, Rosedale: If you put [Martin] O'Malley in [the governor's office], will the whole state be like Baltimore City?

Nitkin: Doug Duncan, the Montgomery County executive who is running against Martin O'Malley in the [Democratic] primary, as well as Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., will certainly use the condition of Baltimore City as a campaign theme. The mayor will point to his accomplishments in the city, and say he can bring the same type of leadership to the state.

Joseph Guy, Waldorf: Why is the government into health care?

Nitkin: That's quite a broad question. Federal government health care programs date to the New Deal, and, later, the Great Society. The state is involved in Medicaid because the federal government provides a dollar for dollar match.

Many people believe that health care is a right, and, therefore, government programs are needed to protect it. Additionally, government has interest in keeping its citizens healthy through vaccinations and other public health programs. Healthy kids learn better and can grow to be productive citizens.

If you are asking more specifically about, say, the so-called Wal-Mart bill, and why the state of Maryland decided to tax large corporations that don't meet a minimal level of health care spending for employees, lawmakers agreed with labor unions and other businesses that Wal-Mart was shifting the burden of health care onto the public sector, and that private health care costs were rising as a consequence.

Mike Girouxor, Wheaton: Why isn't there a bill demanding a paper trail for votes? These Diebold machines are an outrage.

Nitkin: There has been legislation for several years -- and another bill was introduced this year -- to create paper records after votes are cast on electronic voting machines. I predict the legislation will pass this year, but a University of Maryland, Baltimore County professor who is studying the issue has said that it is virtually impossible for voting machines to be outfitted with a paper-producing system in time for the 2006 election.

Gary Colangelo, Silver Spring: Ehrlich congratulates himself on the current budget surplus, but I keep hearing about a structural deficit that will cause a $3 billion deficit next year. Is this smoke and mirrors?

Nitkin: Future projections show that within two years, government expenses will outstrip revenues, by more that $1 billion yearly. Maryland cannot run a deficit, so the gap between revenues and expenses must be closed through spending reductions, transfers, new revenues and other means. Ehrlich is the beneficiary of unexpected revenues that have created a surplus, along with some spending limitations he imposed. But the so-called structural deficit remains.