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Fewer Friends for Baltimore


The spigot of state and federal aid flowing to Baltimore City is about to be turned down so sharply that it poses a monumental challenge for the next mayor. Coping with this new reality will require consummate fiscal skill to manage a troubled city during an era of federal and state downsizing.

Gov. Parris Glendening and President Clinton both count Mayor Kurt Schmoke as a loyal political ally. They classify themselves as Friends of the Cities. Yet conservative trends beyond their control bode ill for Baltimore and other urban centers. Deep budget cuts by the Republican Congress will strike hard at domestic programs that benefit the poor, the sick and the elderly concentrated in the cities. There's no way Annapolis or any state capital can make up the difference.

On top of that, the legislature and governor are committed to lowering state income taxes next year. Cuts in the growth of local aid are seen by General Assembly leaders as the best way to pay for this plan. That means less overall money for schools, libraries and public health.

Baltimore is heavily dependent on these outside sources -- nearly $300 million from the federal government and over $500 million from the state, or 43 percent of city revenue. Additionally, some pressing city fiscal burdens have been assumed by a sympathetic state government, which now runs the city jail, community college and picks up a chunk of the Pratt Central's library expenses.

But Baltimore's dependence on Annapolis is endangered. Though the governor is in the city's corner, a growing conservatism in the suburban-dominated legislature, combined with the city's diminished representation as population shrinks, makes it tough to round up votes for urban aid. One example: A city proposal for the state to pay all expenses of the circuit court and state's attorney's office got nowhere this year. Another example: Montgomery County's drive to cut sharply into Baltimore's transportation aid -- and spread that money around the counties -- is gaining ground.

It will take considerable bridge-building and persistence to overcome these obstacles. Better regional cooperation is one obvious step. A tougher, more conservative fiscal approach is essential, too. If Baltimore can show that it is squeezing inefficiencies from government operations, that it is privatizing functions where it makes sense, that it is starting to turn its school system around and that it has the support of suburban neighbors, the city will get a warmer reception in the legislature.

A new dynamic is at work in Washington and Annapolis. In selecting the next group of city leaders, voters should support individuals who understand the changing political climate and are committed to making the painful but necessary adjustments so vital to Baltimore's future.

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