A cry for help from the pulpit

THE BALTIMORE SUN

INVOKING THE desolation of boarded-up, job-poor and murder-plagued Baltimore streets, the Rev. Harold A. Carter Sr. condemned the sin of inaction.

He aimed his remarks at Maryland's political leaders - and his ministerial brothers.

No fan of casinos or slot machine gambling, the pastor of New Shiloh Baptist Church said he's on the verge of capitulating to the gaming lobby.

"Our people are languishing. A culture of social ills is taking us lower and lower," he told legislative leaders and upward of 100 Baltimore-area ministers. "As a pastor, I don't see anything changing." Poor people will suffer if they gamble away meager resources, he acknowledged, but what is the alternative?

"When are we going to put something else on the table? There seems to be nothing on the horizon," he said.

The ministers had been called to a breakfast pep rally by Democratic state legislators who want help with an array of issues: opposing the increased cost of higher education, holding off more cuts to local government and guaranteeing access to health care.

Pastor Carter turned the tables. Annapolis has to earn the ministers' support, he suggested, by producing more than wheel-spinning gridlock, vetoes and veto overrides. At the same time, he summoned his colleagues to a renewal of the civil rights movement in a new context. His chastening comments came as an unexpected denunciation of governmental failures in Annapolis over the last three years.

This minister's dour perspective could hardly be disputed by the 188 senators and delegates now preparing to begin the 2005 legislative session. The 90 days of hearings, debates and voting begins in a mood of cranky unhappiness after a special legislative session.

No one could have high expectations that the problems Pastor Carter alluded to will be acted upon this year - or even addressed.

Maryland's enormous, built-in budget deficit has been reduced, but it remains an obstacle to the progressive, problem-solving initiatives Pastor Carter was urging. The new session will open with efforts to override several of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s vetoes. The Republican governor will watch the Democrat-dominated Assembly defy him - or try to. Vengeful backlash may be inevitable from one or both directions.

First on the list of override targets will be the recently enacted malpractice legislation, which Mr. Ehrlich has promised to veto - after calling the malpractice issue a crisis and convening a mid-holiday session. He thinks various curbs on malpractice lawsuits were not sufficiently strong, and he doesn't like the Assembly's proposal to pay for insurance relief with a 2 percent tax on HMOs. Regressive and harmful to the poor, Mr. Ehrlich says, even as the state's medical community says its ability to serve the poor will be significantly improved by the Assembly's bill.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, who will attempt to find enough votes to override the veto, told Pastor Carter and the other ministers Thursday that the Assembly's bill is a forceful first step toward safeguarding access to medical care - particularly for the poorest and sickest Marylanders. By reducing the cost of insurance, it begins to address the shortage of ob-gyn specialists in the rural areas. If the governor's veto is sustained, the crisis that prompted a special session will continue for months at least - with little prospect of a better remedy.

Last year, House Democrats proposed a 1-cent increase in the state sales tax as a way of paying for aid to K-12 education, paying down the deficit and avoiding more cuts to important programs. Mr. Ehrlich promised a veto. That approach may not be revived. But some Democrats and some Republicans may wish to vote on slots to show their willingness to reduce the need for more taxes. Mr. Ehrlich's budget secretary, James C. "Chip" DiPaula Jr., says there is willingness to negotiate details of the slots legislation.

If deadlock persists, perhaps Pastor Carter and his colleagues will add more fire and brimstone to the process.

C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM. His column usually appears Sundays.

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