Final budget needs provisions for poor
As the close of the legislative session draws near, Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Maryland legislators are finalizing spending plans.
Education and transportation are once again the priority areas that will benefit most from the state's billion-dollar surplus and continued revenue growth.
Initiatives to help Maryland's poor were largely missing from the governor's proposed budget.
Yet recognizing the opportunity to reverse cuts made in less prosperous times and meet some long-ignored needs, legislators and advocates made several proposals.
Unfortunately, nearly all have been met with opposition from state government officials.
For example, Del. Mark Shriver and his colleagues proposed three welfare-related bills.
One would require the state to pass on the child support it collects for Maryland's poorest families. Presently, none of it reaches the child's family. The state keeps it all, and shares a portion with the federal government.
Another proposal would make welfare eligibility effective from the time clients apply.
At present, applicants are denied benefits for the first two weeks after they apply. The result is that the maximum first month benefit for a family of three with no other income is $222, which is certainly not enough to care adequately for two children.
A third proposal would prohibit the state from counting housing assistance as income when calculating welfare benefits.
By almost any measure, these are modest proposals. Yet in each case state officials have opposed the bills, primarily on the grounds that they cost too much -- never mind the state's billion-dollar surplus or that spending on cash assistance has fallen from $296 million in 1996 to a projected $104 million in the next fiscal year.
In other words, in this time of plenty, poor folk still do not appear on the list of priorities.
Other proposals to help low-income families face an uncertain fate. The most significant idea, touted by Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan and Ways and Means committee chair Del. Sheila Hixson, would expand the state's earned income credit, which provides tax rebates to low-income, working families.
A similar federal credit is the nation's most effective anti-poverty tool aimed at children and an important way to assist low-wage workers.
Once again, however, state agencies have opposed this proposal to help working families, because the third-richest state in the country can't afford it.
Time is running out in Annapolis.
Yes, there is a need to increase spending on education and transportation. But improving the safety net for Maryland's poor needs to be a priority as well.
Steve Bartolomei-Hill, Baltimore
The writer is director of the Maryland Budget and Tax Policy Institute.
Cuba comments off the mark
I disagree with some of Irma Weinstein's comments on her visit to Cuba ("Cuban people are eager to join the world economy," letters, March 15).
I was born in Cuba and came to the United States in 1960 as a young child. But I know and remember enough to know that some of her comments are way off the mark.
Havana was once one of the most beautiful cities in the world, with Spanish Colonial buildings that were its pride and joy.
Now they are just old, decaying buildings, held up with wooden planks. I choke back tears whenever I see pictures or television footage of Cuba.
Fidel Castro "liberated" Cubans from a dictatorship, but he brought them an even worse evil.
Under Fulgencio Batista's dictatorship, if you didn't bother him, he didn't bother you. There was enough food for all and standing in line for many hours to buy food or medicine (if the store doesn't run out before you get to the front of the line) was unheard of.
Cubans could travel to a foreign country in something other than a makeshift raft made of old tires.
Cuba's economy was one of the most prosperous in the Caribbean. There was poverty, as in any other country, but most people were not illiterate and poverty-stricken with no access to medical care.
I want the U.S. embargo lifted and Mr. Castro out of Cuba.
I don't want to go back to live there, but I want to be able to return to my country of birth to visit as many times as I please, without sanctions from the United States.
But I certainly wouldn't travel there now and give Mr. Castro much-needed U.S. dollars.
I hope to live long enough to see Cuba a free country once again and to help Cuba get back on its feet.
Maria Alvarez, Ellicott City
Bay pilots' battle for control
I read with interest The Sun's article on the Port of Baltimore's docking masters seeking to join the Association of Maryland Pilots ("Bay pilots press effort to boost power in port," March 20).
Is this another ploy by the bay pilots to control movement of all vessels on the bay and the harbor?
I hope the legislature remembers that in 1984 it granted the bay pilots' request to move rate-making authority from the Board of Pilot Examiners to the Public Service Commission.
In the process, guidelines were developed which make it next to impossible for the commission to set reasonable pilotage rates.
Instead of making the docking masters part of the Association of Maryland Pilots, it would be better to have them under the licensing control of the U.S. Coast Guard or of a state agency unrelated to the pilots' association.
C. Nelson Bull, Jr., Baltimore
The writer is a retired steamship agent.
I commend The Sun for highlighting the proposed legislation to incorporate the docking pilot function within the Maryland bay pilot's monopoly.
The array of lobbyists hired by the pilots to support this bill is certainly capable of a full-court press on legislators, who may not be aware of the many facets of this issue beyond the pilots' mantra of "safety and accountability."
Legislators should also know that the current system, which has been in effect for many years, has an outstanding safety record.
What legislators may not know is that during the 1990s all members of the port community made great improvements in efficiency and productivity to maintain strict control of prices -- all except the bay pilots, that is.
Despite the low inflation rate and substantial decline in vessel calls, the pilots sought annual pay increases of almost 10 percent during the last decade.
The bay pilots, as well as the docking pilots, provide a first-class, professional service and deserve to be well-compensated.
However doctors, lawyers, and other professionals learned during the 1990s that consumers will insist on controlling expenses in a competitive environment.
But the bay pilots do not operate in a competitive environment. And the Public Service Commission's process for approving pilotage rates has proven ineffective in achieving reasonable rates.
Otherwise, how could pilotage rates go up 64 percent over the last 10 years, while the hours pilots work have gone down?
As a taxpayer, I wonder how our state government could allow such a situation, let alone support it through state legislation giving the pilots a monopoly. I also find it incredible that the Senate could approve legislation that would expand this mononpoly to include the docking pilots.
As part of the maritime community, I wonder what the impact of adding docking pilots to this spiraling cost structure would be on our port's competitive position.
I hope the vote in the House of Delegates will be more sensible than the one in the Senate.
If not, I hope the governor exercises his veto.
L. G. Connor Jr., Baltimore
The writer is president of John S. Connor Inc., a shipping agent.
Remembering Park Heights' shepherd
I noted with sadness the passing of the Rev. Robert C. Hunt, pastor of the Good Shepherd Baptist Church in Park Heights on March 27.
Though I was never a member of his congregation, Mr. Hunt left an indelible impression when a colleague and I interviewed and photographed him two years ago.
He radiated a rare sort of dignity. His bearing and demeanor were regal, and he seemed possessed of a deep, inner calm.
Under Mr. Hunt's charismatic leadership, Good Shepherd's congregation swelled from a few hundred to more than 1,600. People came from as far away as Edgewood and Columbia to worship..
But Mr. Hunt never forgot the Park Heights community's needs.
During his tenure, the church opened a soup kitchen and pantry and funded it through congregational tithing. It helped neighbors get drug treatment, shelter and jobs and raised money to help neigbors pay utility bills.
Reverend Hunt told me his childhood dream was to be an accountant. "I saw a matchbook cover about careers," he told me. "I didn't want to live in poverty. I wanted something out of life."
But by the age of 27, he recalled, "There was something strange going on in my life, and I just couldn't pinpoint what it was."
Before long, he realized he felt called to the ministry. "We're a church committed to winning lost souls for the kingdom of God," Reverend Hunt said. "The greatest passion is to motivate . . . this congregation to see the role that they can play in the betterment of humanity, not only in Park Heights, but wherever it is that they might be a part of."
Mr. Hunt touched many, many lives and will be sorely missed.
Amy Bernstein, Baltimore
Bones to pick on dogs, parks
In The Sun's article on Robert E. Lee Park, Robert Macht stated, "It's not as if the dogs pay taxes. It's not as if they're children" ("Dog owners pull against leash law," March 22).
As a child-free dog owner, I do pay: $10 a year per license for each of my three dogs; $80 a year for a kennel permit; any associated building or land-use permits the city decides to apply; and vet bills to maintain my dogs' health so they can socialize with dogs and people relatively worry-free.
I also pay city taxes to educate other people's children, but I would rather put those dollars toward a leash-free park, so those who make homes for dogs can give them adequate exercise. That's more beneficial to me than pouring more money into the black holes of our public schools.
What is most disturbing is that hard-liners won't accept the logical solution: Fence off a large water-accessible area in the park for dogs; leave the rest for others.
If city Director of Recreation and Parks Thomas Overton can't take this simple action, perhaps it's time to replace him.
Melisa Paye-Mose, Baltimore
I have a sweet-tempered but exuberant Labrador retriever, and I can't imagine allowing him off his leash in a public park -- for his welfare, other folks' safety and my piece of mind.
When I run through Robert E. Lee Park I'm astounded at dog owners' nonchalance when the inevitable runner-unleashed dog collisions occur.
I can't indulge my visceral urge to throttle these irresponsible and arrogant people, without risk of legal action.
So I hope the city acts as my proxy -- and resumes aggressive prosecution of the leash law, with $100 citations.
John Roemer IV, Parkton
It wasn't so long ago that Robert E. Lee Memorial Park was the address of choice for drug dealers, users and other miscreants. Today the park is crime-free.
Was it the smell of honeysuckle planted by the park conservancy that drove the trouble away? Aggressive policing? Some innovative policy by the parks department?
No. The credit belongs to dogs and their civic-minded owners.
Their presence in the park, from dusk till dawn, 365 days a year, provides the area extra eyes and ears that ensure at least our little slice of heaven is a safe and welcome respite from the real crime we have to deal with everywhere else.
Steven H. Halpert, Baltimore
It must be Spring, because The Sun has once again trotted out the same old anti-dog article, changed a few names and printed it.
In Jamie Stiehm's 18 paragraphs about dog owners in Robert E. Lee Park she repeatedly uses words such as "fiercer," "war" and "crisis"; it is as if she were writing about Kosovo ("Dog owners pull against leash law," March 22).
Most people using the park are exercising with their dogs. Park policy should reflect their needs.
Ms. Stiehm's claim that the Friends of Lake Roland aggressively promotes running dogs without leashes is wrong. The only thing the group promotes is cleaning up after our dogs.
With the parks department's permission, we placed waste management boxes throughout the park. Last fall, those boxes were unceremoniously removed by the same department of parks.
Kathy Homan, Baltimore
I say "bravo" to city director of parks and recreation Thomas Overton for supporting the leash law in city parks.
He should get a gold medal for this, not a pink slip.
Barbara J. Hoffman, Brooklyn
The Sun's article "Dog owners pull against leash law" focused on a growing conflict between dog owners and others at Robert E. Lee Park. But this problem is shared by park users throughout the city.
More and more city dwellers are adopting dogs every year, only to be faced with a lack of park space to exercise and enjoy them.
As a result, many owners let dogs off-leash illegally, which may infringe on the rights of others.
The Responsible Dog Owners Group Inc. (R-Dog) is a nonprofit corporation that was organized to resolve this conflict.
However, for more than a year, our efforts to work with the city parks department have been entirely unsuccessful; we have not even been able to make an appointment with its director, Thomas Overton.
There are now more than 300 dog parks in the United States, some of which have been operating successfully for years.
There is no reason Baltimore's parks department can't improve the quality of city living by bringing this idea to Baltimore.
Christina Sabin-Scharff, Baltimore
The writer is president of the Responsible Dog Owners Group Inc.
Doing right on late fees
Should those who pay bills on time be forced to pay higher prices because others are not as prompt?
This is being decided by the House of Delegates, which is considering a bill that would change the law regarding late fees.
The Maryland Chamber of Commerce supports this legislation because it benefits those who pay their bills on time.
A court decision last summer upheld a 150-year old law that limits late fees to 6 percent per year. So a business may now only charge 50-cents per month against a $100 outstanding balance.
Is 50-cents per month incentive enough for consumers to pay their bill on time? Most reasonable people would say no.
If the law is not changed, those who pay late will continue to do so. And businesses (particularly the small businesses which are the economic foundation of our state) will be forced to raise their charges to compensate for late-payers who drive up costs.
The Maryland chamber and our sister chambers of commerce agree we should cap late fees. It supports the Senate's recently passed bill, which would limit most late fees to 1.5 percent per month or 18 percent per year.
This rate is 6 percentage points lower than Maryland's maximum credit card interest rate.
For businesses that intend to cut off service, this bill allows a maximum late charge of $10 or 10 percent, whichever is greater.
On a $100 outstanding balance, the late fee after three months prior to interruption of service would be no more than $30.
Trial lawyers, eager to file class action lawsuits and earn contingency fees, are attempting to put an anti-consumer spin on this legislation for their own benefit.
The business community wants a law that not only protects against late-paying customers, but also helps to keep prices low for customers who pay on time.
Late fees legislation is actually good for consumers because it protects them from higher prices and helps keep businesses afloat.
It is only bad for class-action attorneys.
Kathleen T. Snyder, Annapolis
The writer is president and ceo of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce.
Question of the Month
With parkland a precious commodity in the city and suburbs, how can recreation and parks officials best answer the conflicting needs of the many people and pets who use them? Should there be designated, confined areas in parks where dogs can play unleashed? Should leash laws be repealed?
We are looking for 300 words or less; the deadline is April 24. Letters become the property of The Sun, which reserves the right to edit them.
Letters should include your name and address, along with a day and evening telephone number. E-mail us: email@example.com; write us: Letters to the Editor, The Sun, P.O. Box 1377, Baltimore 21278-0001; fax us: 410-332-6977.