Creating a vision for Md.'s legislature; General Assembly: Lawmakers need to take a long-range view on issues this session. Agenda '99: Goals for the new year


IT'S A NEW year and a new term for members of the General Assembly preparing to open their 90-day session in Annapolis on Wednesday.

An unusual convergence of issues and dollars gives them a chance to do something different this year: plan ahead.

Too often, this state's lawmakers are confronted with immediate crises that need a quick fix. That's especially true of financial proposals that often clash with insufficient tax revenue.

This year, though, no emergencies are looming, and the state's treasury has a fat surplus. Indeed, the issues and the available dollars give lawmakers an opportunity to take a long-range view. What's required of them is some judicious foresight.

Education is king

Take the item at the top of everyone's agenda: education.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening intends to devote much of the state's budget surplus to public school construction and to Maryland's public colleges and universities. These would be wise investments.

Glendening He also will try again to create an entitlement for all B-average high school graduates in Maryland -- a free public college education.

Meanwhile, House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. wants to find a way to reward superior teachers and improve the caliber of those going into the teaching profession.

All of these proposals require thoughtful evaluation:

* Expanding local school construction makes sense only if it can be done without wasting dollars or encouraging population sprawl.

* Promoting higher education is essential for this state's growth, but carefully identified and funded priorities are essential.

* A tuition entitlement for students may prove an unbearable financial burden for taxpayers unless it is more carefully defined.

* Lawmakers must have the courage to stand up to defenders of the status quo -- the teachers union, in particular -- if they intend to make substantive changes in how teachers are hired and rewarded.

None of these decisions will be easy for legislators, especially the 37 newly elected senators and delegates who lack expertise in these subjects. But they will learn during the next three months. They must remember to keep their eyes on the future -- and not on immediate political gratification.

Deregulating electric rates

A long-term approach is even more important in grappling with the complex matter of freeing electricity rates from regulatory controls.

Giving consumers and businesses a choice of electric suppliers sounds simple, but isn't.

How do you ensure that electrical service is available to everyone, especially the poor?

How do you ensure that price breaks apply to consumers as well as Maryland's biggest and best business customers?

How do you guarantee that established local utilities and their out-of-town rivals enter the new world of market-driven electric rates on a level playing field?

How do you compensate county governments for property tax revenue that could be lost once out-of-state rivals import electricity into Maryland?

These questions must be answered by lawmakers in a way that makes electric deregulation a success here.

Legislators must get it right, even if that means postponing some matters until next year.

The consequences of settling on improper solutions could be disastrous for Maryland residents and for the state's economic growth.

Transportation concerns

Lawmakers will also consider whether to raise the state's gasoline tax to accelerate road building and meet mass transit demands.

The governor's reluctance is shortsighted. Some new revenue sources need to be found soon if Maryland is to maintain its good network of roads, unclog highway gridlock in developed areas, find money to replace the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and improve bus and light-rail routes.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller is ready to support a higher gas tax; Speaker Taylor favors expanding the sales tax to Internet purchases and dedicating that revenue to mass transit.

Both approaches ought to be examined by lawmakers who are dedicated to developing a framework for future transportation spending.

Miller At the same time, legislators may be asked to approve a funding plan to help the Port of Baltimore land a critical contract with two huge shipping concerns that want to consolidate their East Coast operations. Quick action may be needed to seal the deal. Winning this contract would ensure a decade of explosive growth at the port.

Senators and delegates ought to recognize the long-range benefits that such funding would provide for Maryland.

Health disputes

After several years of bureaucratic bickering, lawmakers appear ready to streamline the state's three-tiered health-care regulatory system for controlling hospital costs. One umbrella group can easily handle the job.

Mr. Taylor also wants to find an easier way to convert underused hospitals to other health-care purposes. That could result in big savings for patients in the long term, but any move in this direction would be controversial.

Taylor Another point of disagreement is over how to spend proceeds from Maryland's settlement with tobacco companies.

The governor wants to retain control over this money each year. But lawmakers are pushing to put limits on these annual appropriations. They want to see the cash used for health-related projects; the governor wants to put much of the tobacco money into education. The legislative view may prove most persuasive.

Ethics reforms

Finally, lawmakers must do something to clean up their ineffective and tarnished ethics law, especially after last year's double embarrassment -- the expulsion of Sen. Larry Young and the forced resignation of Del. Gerald J. Curran, both of Baltimore, for their inappropriate business dealings.

A commission, chaired by U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, has recommended rewriting the statute to more clearly define conflicts of interest, eliminate free meals from lobbyists and make legislators more sensitive to what constitutes improper conduct.

Rapid approval of these recommendations is a must. The public no longer will tolerate watered-down ethics laws filled with loopholes.

A new General Assembly has the opportunity to establish itself in this area right away. Improving the ethics climate in the State House would be a strong start for legislators in 1999.

Pub Date: 1/10/99

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