Disappointing report card for General Assembly; Limited focus: Lawmakers and governor failed to address major long-term issues facing Maryland

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WHEN a report card contains almost as many Fs as As, and almost as many Ds as Bs, it's been a rollercoaster of a semester.

That was very much the case with the just-concluded Maryland General Assembly session, during which lawmakers and the governor can claim significant achievements but also left behind too many failures.

Disappointing is the best word to describe the 90-day session. Long-term issues that bedevil parts of the state remain unaddressed. Efforts to help Maryland's poorest and neediest citizens were shelved. Attempts to mandate sweeping reforms in public schools and in the treatment of juvenile offenders met with defeat.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening and legislators had a $1 billion budget surplus yet failed to address a $27 billion funding gap in state transportation over the next two decades. Baltimore's deadly drug epidemic got token attention. The city school board's thoughtful reform plan -- more pre-kindergarten, more summer school, more classroom computers -- was ignored by the governor.

These are issues that must be faced if Maryland is to secure its economic future. But elected state leaders weren't up to the task.

Before the session opened, we published our list of priorities. In some categories, such as gun safety, State House officials came through brilliantly. On other topics, though, they flunked the test.

Here are the 16 items on The Sun's editorial agenda for the 2000 General Assembly and how things turned out by the time the legislature adjourned Monday night:

Education

The state school board's $49 million early-intervention plan to help middle-school and elementary-school pupils who fall behind in reading and math.

It was distressing to see Gov. Parris N. Glendening oppose his own school board and school chief on this important issue. Eventually, he grudgingly put $12 million into the middle-school intervention program, but refused to help failing 1st and 2nd-grade students.

His decision could have disastrous long-term consequences. Every education study shows that very early intervention is critical to ensure that children gain the skills to succeed in life.

Even when the legislature tried to mandate more funds for the middle-school intervention plan in 2001, the governor objected. In the end, he agreed to put up at least $19.5 million next year to help deficient middle-school students. We urge the self-styled "education governor" to become a booster, not an opponent, of elementary-school intervention, too.

Grade: C-minus

Baltimore's request for $25 million to help the state's worst-performing school system focus on students having trouble making the grade.

Aside from school construction money -- where much of the state's budget surplus was spent -- city schools received little new classroom aid from the governor. This wasn't one of his priorities -- and legislators didn't try very hard to change his mind.

Grade: F

Crime and punishment

Overhaul the discredited and scandal-plagued Department of Juvenile Justice.

Another Glendening-Townsend administration failure. A task force fashioned a reform package to revamp the agency and ensure accountability. This seemed to have the support of Mr. Glendening and Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

But once the administration boosted the department's budget substantially and got Bishop L. Robinson confirmed as secretary of juvenile justice, it came out against the reform package.

None of the bills passed. Advocacy groups fear there could be political cover-ups if Mr. Robinson's rehabilitation plans don't work or new scandals break out in the department.

Grade: D-plus

Support changes in Baltimore's chaotic criminal-justice system. The governor came through with more money for prosecutors, public defenders and judges to reduce the backlog of cases and improve accountability -- but the legislature cut out some of the court funds. This foolish budget move will slow reform efforts. Much more money will be needed next year if Annapolis is serious about helping the city create a criminal-justice system that works effectively and efficiently.

Grade: B-minus

Expand Baltimore's drug-treatment program with $25 million in new state funds.

State drug-treatment aid rose 42 percent, but only $8 million found its way to the city, the area of greatest needed.

That is far short of what's truly required to deal with this explosive problem. Four out of five city crimes are drug-related. Yet neither the administration nor the legislature made this a priority.

Grade: D-plus

Transportation

Lower the state's 50-percent fare-box mandate for buses and subways.

This was supported by Mr. Glendening and legislative leaders. The new law sets the fare-box mandate at 40 percent, thus giving transit officials flexibility to experiment with neighborhood bus routes, suburb-to-suburb routes and tying more routes to light-rail and Metro stations.

Grade: A

Earmark a portion of the state sales tax to mass transit.

Opposed by the governor and Senate leaders, this forward-looking proposal from House Speaker Casper R. Taylor never had a chance. The governor did use surplus fund to begin paying for a new Woodrow Wilson Bridge over the Potomac River and more commuter rail lines in the Washington suburbs.

But still no transportation money for new routes in Baltimore. Mr. Glendening has avoided confronting the state's $27 billion long-term transportation funding gap.

Grade: F

Social services

Higher grants to single, disabled adults who fall through the federal "safety net."

Was it asking too much for the governor to give people in this vulnerable group more than $132 a month to live on?

Apparently so. He said it would defeat the goal of ending welfare and fostering self-sufficiency.

But these are unemployable, troubled people. Instead of giving them a bigger assist, the administration actually cut the overall allocation for this program. It was not the governor's finest hour.

Grade: F

Provide tuition, tutoring, child care and books for low-income working adults taking skills courses at community colleges.

This plan would have fit with the governor's welfare-to-work efforts. Its goal was to make new workers in the job market fully self-sufficient. But the Glendening administration successfully opposed the bill.

Grade: F

Allocate money to help frail, low-income seniors stay out of nursing homes.

The governor heeded pleas from legislators and put $5 million in his budget as part of a four-year effort to make sure 7,500 seniors get home care or gain access to assisted-living facilities.

Keeping them active and in the community not only saves government money, it gives them longer, more rewarding lives.

Grade: A

Expand the state's health-insurance program for children of working families.

This bill passed on the last day of the session. It expands medical coverage to 19,600 more children and 600 pregnant women who don't have any insurance. But there's a delayed trigger: The law doesn't kick in until next year.

Grade: B-plus

Increase the state's refundable Earned Income Tax Credit so working-poor families have a little more money to pay their bills.

The more modest of two measures passed, giving low-income parents with children a slightly bigger cash refund at tax time. For a two-parent, two-child family with a minimum-wage income, this means an extra $97; a one-parent, two-child family would get an extra $133.

That's a good start, but legislators and the governor can and should do better next session, if the economy continues to flourish.

Grade: A-minus

Other priorities

Mandate safety locks on handguns.

The governor's biggest win of the session. He took on the National Rifle Association and reluctant rural legislators and came away with a victory that drew national attention. External safety locks with be required on all handguns sold after July 1; in three years, the guns must have internal locking devices.

That should help prevent children from firing these lethal weapons. Required gun-safety courses should also lower the number of inadvertent -- but potentially deadly -- firearm discharges.

Grade: A

Tough ethics reforms to ban business deals between lobbyists and legislators.

Lawmakers missed a chance to prove to the public they are willing to impose strict standards of conduct on themselves. Instead, they rebelled when leaders offered this bill. In its place, they passed a weak measure requiring disclosure of any lobbyist's business dealings with senators or delegates.

It's a meek response that does nothing to deter the growing influence of lobbyists in the lives of state legislators.

Grade: C-plus

Make the Injured Workers' Insurance Fund accountable for its actions.

Once again, the legislature adopted the weaker of two bills. It gives the insurance commissioner limited oversight over IWIF, a quasi-governmental provider of workers compensation policies. The commissioner can shine a spotlight on irregularities but can't order IWIF to stop these practices.

That's not good enough. IWIF should answer directly to the insurance commissioner, like all other insurers in Maryland. The issue should be revisited next year.

Grade: B

Fund renovations at the Hippodrome Theater, a key to the city's west-side development.

The governor proved generous in underwriting this public-private project. But Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman added amendments that could delay construction as historic preservationists and area shop-owners try to subvert this ambitious revitalization effort.

Grade: A-minus

Our report card shows five As, three Bs, two Cs, 2 Ds and four Fs. That's hardly a blockbuster General Assembly session.

Lawmakers and the governor handled some complex and crucial issues with aplomb, but dropped the ball on serious societal problems that will only grow worse before they can be addressed during next year's 90-day session.

General Assembly report card

School board's early-intervention plan C-

City's school improvement request F

Overhaul of Juvenile Justice D+

Aid for city's criminal justice reforms B-

Drug-treatment money for city D+

Lower mass-transit farebox mandate A

Earmark sales-tax revenue for mass transit F

Higher grants for single, disabled adults F

Education aid for low-income working parents F

Funds to keep frail seniors independent A

Expansion of state health plan for children B+

Higher Earned Income Tax Credit for working poor A-

Mandatory handgun safety locks A

Ban business deals between legislators and loobyists C+

Regulate Injured Workers' Insurance Fund closer B

Approve construction funds for Hippodrome Theater A-

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
41°