Political notebook: Disability advocates lobby for alcohol tax

Michelle Rikon of Elkridge has a 12-year-old son with multiple disabilities who sometimes violently lashes out at her and his 8-year-old brother, traumatizing his younger brother and monopolizing his mother's time to the point that the 8-year-old won't eat and might need a colostomy. He's fed through a tube, she said, while her older boy has been hospitalized seven times for his outbursts, and nothing seems to help.

If that weren't bad enough, she said, "We have received no services" from the state's Developmental Disabilities Administration. Rikon, a 38-year old nurse, made her tearful, emotional remarks at a legislative breakfast held Wednesday morning by the ARC of Howard County and the Howard County Autism Society.

Other speakers said the overburdened agency is dropping thousands of needy families from its 19,000-name waiting list, often without any notification — an allegation that the state disputes.

ARC and the autism group are pushing Howard's state legislators to support an alcohol tax increase that they believe could help relieve their problems with more than $200 million in dedicated new revenue.

They argue that the increase would add 10 cents to the cost of every drink. Maryland's tax on hard liquor hasn't changed since 1955. Beer and wine taxes have not increased since 1972. Dorothy Plantz, another ARC leader, said Maryland ranks 47th nationally in spending for disability services.

Others complained that the state pays so little to front-line disabilities workers that turnover is very high — something that upsets already fragile people who are often profoundly handicapped. Tracey Eberhardt, past president of the ARC of Howard County, said thousands of people who need services have been arbitrarily removed from the waiting list.

That allegation impressed Senate Majority Leader Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, one of six state legislators and three County Council members, including likely incoming Chairman Calvin Ball, who attended at the meeting at the Hawthorne Community Center in Hickory Ridge.

"That really disturbs me," said Kasemeyer, a Democrat who is also acting chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee. "Something's amiss here," he said, and vowed to get more information about the paring of the waiting list.

State health department spokesman David Paulson denied Eberhardt's accusations. "There's no basis in fact for that," he said, adding that thousands of state notification letters began going out Nov. 1 after a full year of attempts to reach people on the list by letter, phone or other means. The list is now down to 6,000 names, with 13,000 people dropped because they couldn't be located. "That list is now a pure waiting list," he said. "Nobody is dropped automatically from the waiting list," and the state letters include a phone number for questions and information on an appeals process.

No officials spoke at the breakfast, but neither Kasemeyer nor state Sen. James N. Robey, also a Democrat, indicated support for the alcohol tax hike after the meeting.

Kasemeyer said he's still uncertain of Gov. Martin O'Malley's position on the alcohol tax, while Robey and Republican Del. Warren E. Miller, who also attended, said they are not convinced that any new revenue would really be used for disability services. Miller said he's opposed to raising taxes, but said, "I'm convinced the governor needs to do something to help this group. Why doesn't he? He controls the budget. I have no belief that raising taxes will help."

Democratic Del. Elizabeth Bobo said she will co-sponsor the alcohol tax increase, which she did in the 2009 session, even though it was an election year. "I don't think it would have hurt people much in the election," she said.

Crossing party lines

Politics can be as much about personal relationships as party labels and ideology. Former television reporter and Howard County resident Andy Barth's stint this year as campaign spokesman for Republican gubernatorial candidate Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is a prime example.

Considered a liberal Democrat by many when he ran for Congress in 2006, Barth's job with Ehrlich puzzled more than a few.

"I was kind of surprised," said Dr. Peter Beilenson, another Democrat who, like Barth, ran for Maryland's 3rd Congressional District seat that year and later employed Barth as a part-time spokesman for the Healthy Howard health access plan that has been a frequent target of county Republicans. Barth said he got questions about his role with Ehrlich from acquaintances, too.

"I did think his politics are clearly to the left of Ehrlich's," said Beilenson, who is now the county's health officer.

Barth, who said he's a "moderate Democrat," ran for Congress on a promise of being "a voice for decency and common sense," along with being a strong opponent of the war in Iraq, a big supporter of national health care change and a critic of the Bush administration's Medicare Part D drug subsidy plan, which Barth described at the time as "complicated, cumbersome and user-hostile." Barth finished a distant third in the Democratic primary, behind Rep. John Sarbanes, who just won re-election to a third term.

Barth said his work for Ehrlich was based on a personal respect formed over a period of years.

"I never thought of this as a political decision," he said. "I covered him starting in 1994 when he first ran for Congress. I thought then this was an honest and decent guy I would love to work for, but I filed it away." Barth was a reporter for more than 35 years, both at Baltimore's WMAR (Channel 2) and later for Washington station WTTG (Channel 5). He also once sought the presidency of the Columbia Association.

When he ran for Congress, Barth said he encountered then-Governor Ehrlich on the campaign trail and Ehrlich offered him valuable information. "He helped me with advice, sharing the experience that he had from the practical side," Barth said. That just reinforced his feeling that Ehrlich was "a good guy. What he is mostly is loyal and honest, and I valued the chance to work for him."

Sure, their views on some issues differed, Barth said, "but he was the candidate. I wasn't." Those differences did not produce any discomfort, Barth said. "He has an open mind and an open process. He likes to talk about issues and ideas," Barth added, and is "respectful of other people's ideas."

Bottom line, Barth said: He preferred Ehrlich to O'Malley, who won the election by double digits.

"I thought of the two people running, Bob Ehrlich was the better choice in terms of character and values. I wish people would get past the partisanship that has people vote on party labels."

Barth is 64 now, living just outside Columbia in Fulton, and he's not ready for the proverbial rocking chair. "I'm not ready to retire, and definitely looking for something interesting to do," he said, though he doesn't plan to run for public office again. Raising money is too hard and he's not good at it, he said.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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