The Annapolis agenda

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LAWMAKERS CAN be forgiven if they aren't all smiles when the Maryland General Assembly reconvenes Wednesday for its annual 90-day session. A little dM-ijM-' vu may be in order as well. After all, they're still technically in session; the special session convened in December to address rising medical malpractice insurance rates is merely in recess. Legislators will first meet Tuesday for a highly charged debate over whether to override bills vetoed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., then adjourn, then reconvene the next day. But wait, it gets worse.

Once they've survived the initial partisan quarreling, the real D-Day in Annapolis arrives one week later, on Jan. 19. That's the day Mr. Ehrlich and his staff unveil their proposed budget for the coming year. The fiscal 2006 budget is likely to provoke even more heated debate. Why? Because Mr. Ehrlich -- still smarting from the legislature's failure to legalize slot machines -- has decided that Maryland's long-term budget problems will now be solved solely by downsizing state government.

The governor's advisers refer to this as a "refocusing" of government. And, in theory, this can be a constructive exercise. Most any state program can be made leaner and more efficient. But the budget-cutting ambitions of Mr. Ehrlich and his budget secretary, James C. "Chip" DiPaula Jr., are greater then merely cutting waste and abuse. This summer, Mr. DiPaula asked agency heads to come up with ways to trim their spending by 12 percent or more. He wanted them to identify whole programs that might be discarded.

What has made the governor's hit list? A memo leaked in September suggested the state health department's reductions might include shuttering four mental health facilities, reducing health benefits to poor children and forcing rape victims to purchase their own laboratory tests.

The administration later disavowed these ideas. But if such drastic measures can even be considered, what might have made the proverbial cut?

The timing is curious, too. Maryland's economy is on the rebound, and tax revenues are rising. Last spring, Mr. Ehrlich expected to face an $800 million deficit in fiscal '06. Legislators believe it's now closer to $300 million. That should be manageable. Last year, twice as much was deleted from the budget without much complaint.

But this time, Mr. Ehrlich wants to solve the long-term structural deficit that rises to a billion dollars or more in future years -- and that may require less nip and tuck and more outright amputation. Might this just be a setup to force legislators to revisit slots? Administration officials say they remain open to a slots proposal but can carry on without one.

In this terrain of hard choices and suspect motives (not to mention the increasingly contentious relationship between Mr. Ehrlich and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch), lawmakers must find a moderate path.

That means saying no to slot machines and yes to preserving state government's essential programs. And perhaps suffering vilification by a governor who wants voters to believe they can get something for nothing -- all the government they want without personal sacrifice.

But it doesn't stop there. While budget and spending issues will likely dominate the session, legislators will have plenty of other challenges to resolve as well. Here is a checklist of some of the most important items on their agenda:

Education: Find the resources to more than double the state's public school construction budget to $250 million, as recommended by a recent task force. Support the governor's increased aid to the state's colleges and universities, a belated effort to offset recent tuition increases, the so-called hidden tax on the middle class by the Ehrlich administration.

Health: No matter what becomes of the medical malpractice legislation passed by the General Assembly (and scheduled to be vetoed by Mr. Ehrlich tomorrow), there's room to hold down skyrocketing costs further. Lawmakers also need to revive plans for expanded access to health care for the poor. One drawback: They'll have to find a new way to finance the proposal (they had planned to use the HMO tax now earmarked for malpractice reform).

Economic development: With competition from California looming, Maryland needs to improve the economic climate for stem-cell research and other biotechnology investment. Similarly, the state's tax credit for research and development, a program that expired last year, deserves to be extended to attract more potential employers.

Public safety: Revive Mr. Ehrlich's proposal to increase penalties for intimidating crime victims and witnesses. Expand drug treatment opportunities for released convicts. Reorganize the underperforming Department of Juvenile Services. Restrict teen drivers from carrying passengers younger than 18 for at least their first six months on the road.

Employment: Consider creating a Maryland minimum wage of $6.15 per hour ($1 per hour higher than the federal guarantee) to protect workers. But also explore ways to lower the rising cost of unemployment insurance to businesses.

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