Glendening's vision for the 21st century; Ambitious agenda: Education, environment, equality top the list, but can we afford it all?


IN celebrating his second inauguration as governor of Maryland, Parris N. Glendening challenged listeners to answer some big questions. "What should we become?" "What is in our hearts?" "What ought we to be, as a people, and as a society?"

Mr. Glendening's answer can be boiled down to "three e's" -- education, environment and equality.

His vision of the next century focuses on better classroom learning, open access to college, protection of Maryland's "green infrastructure," and tolerance of the state's diverse population.

The governor followed up this big-picture inaugural address on Wednesday with a small-picture State of the State address the next day, laying out immediate objectives. Then he released the funding part of the equation in his 1,000-page operating budget request.

It is an expansive, and expensive, agenda: A half-billion dollars in new state operating funds -- $150 million more than the affordability limits set by legislative leaders. This has raised eyebrows from both Republicans and a number of legislative Democrats.

Mr. Glendening repeated three times in his State of the State speech that prosperity creates "the opportunity and the ability to think bigger, reach further and do more!" Conveniently, economic prosperity also lets him reward groups that backed him last year -- labor unions, environmentalists, churches, gun-control advocates and the state's vast education constituency.

Indeed, education lies at the heart of his vision. "Education must not be 'a' priority," the governor said, "it must be 'the' priority."

He's right. Preparing students for jobs in a high-tech society requires a heightened commitment. Legislators may want to temper his enthusiasm, though, to make it fit with long-range financial realities.

His $250 million school-building program is an excellent way to spend surplus funds to improve the learning environment. Proposals for more reading and math teachers, working with smaller classes, would help solve key education shortcomings. And poorly trained, unqualified teachers cannot be tolerated, even at a time when a teacher shortage looms.

The scope of the governor's HOPE scholarship proposal, though, alarms lawmakers. A targeted, free college-tuition plan to remedy critical job shortages -- scientists, high-tech workers, teachers -- warrants support, even at $11 million this year just for freshmen in these fields. But free tuition for all B-average students could break the state's piggy bank.

A sharp increase in spending for state universities -- $87 million -- is a welcome development. The governor's further determination to seek another $27 million later this session to implement recommendations of a task force on higher education is even more important.

But tying a higher cigarette tax to new science buildings on state campuses has antagonized legislators, who don't see any reason to link the two. They are right. While both objectives are worthy, the issues should be addressed separately.

Smart Growth, the governor's pride and joy, dominates his environmental package. There's $46.5 million to preserve green space and farmland, $1.5 million to help reclaim contaminated industrial sites, $18 million to stimulate neighborhood redevelopment, $8 million to rejuvenate downtown Silver Spring and $6 million to recycle Memorial Stadium.

Add in $12 million for nutrient removal from the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, and citizens are offered long-range answers to sprawl and pollution.

In the area of equality, Mr. Glendening wants to expand anti-discriminatory protections to gays and lesbians. He also voiced support for bolstering hate-crimes laws. These are essential steps if Maryland is, as the governor said, to draw strength from diversity in the next century.

Mr. Glendening has proposed a broad role for state government. Legislators may try to narrow the scope. They appear determined to cut his budget to a more affordable level. That would be prudent.

To achieve the governor's ambitious goals, this state must be positioned so it can weather the next economic downturn. Securing our future means setting aggressive priorities and safeguarding Maryland's financial well-being.

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