Ehrlich makes 2005 the Year of the Free Lunch


GOV. ROBERT L. Ehrlich Jr. is calling 2005 "the Year of the Child." Who could object?

But others will have different labels.

Maybe it's the Year of Bait-and-Switch. A few days before releasing his budget, the governor announced a grand new program to attack lead poisoning in children. The budget document revealed a cut of up to $375,000 in lead-poisoning funds for Baltimore.

It's definitely the Year of Having It Both Ways. You have a news conference announcing your support of lead-paint eradication around the state. You hail two of the state's lead eradication advocates during your State of the State address. Then you cut the budget.

What's going on? The administration says it's not about the money, it's about the results.

Again, there's another view of the strategy.

"You hope people remember your press conference on the new initiative and forget your budget cut," says Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, one of the lead-paint leaders mentioned in the governor's speech.

Or maybe it's the Year of Cannibalization, a year in which this or that program survives at the expense of this or that other program. Shortfalls in Medicaid may be cured at the expense of cancer research programs at the Johns Hopkins and University of Maryland hospitals.

Or maybe it's just another Year of Smoke and Mirrors. The governor and his team are taking credit for the largest infusion of education money in history. It's a big-ticket item approved by the Democrat-controlled General Assembly the year before Mr. Ehrlich's election. He promised to support it, and he is. But it's a mammoth program that needs a mammoth revenue stream. The Democrats didn't provide one, and neither has Governor Ehrlich.

But no one thought Maryland would sacrifice important programs such as cancer research. Massive new school aid demands more money from taxpayers - if they still believe in public education. And that is a recurrent theme: Without new revenue from taxes, which Mr. Ehrlich rejects, spending will have to be reduced. Services, too.

How about those state employees, for example? On the one hand, they get a 2 percent increase in pay. At the same time, they're asked to pay more for health insurance. We're all paying more for health insurance, but don't call standing still an increase.

Or maybe it's the Year of the Credit-taking Contortion: After Mr. Ehrlich vetoed the General Assembly's medical malpractice bill, he's taking credit for providing funds to increase payments to doctors in the Medicaid program. The increase was part of the malpractice bill he vetoed and the General Assembly pushed into law over his opposition.

And don't be surprised when more labels are needed. One budget analyst says the document is replete with bewildering "takes and puts" yet to be digested. People whose programs have been helped or hurt may still not know their fate. Even those programs that were helped won't have been helped enough, in some cases, to stay even with cost-of-living increases or increases in eligibility. Higher education in Maryland, hit with big cuts over the last two years, got a $42 million infusion this year. As a result, tuition only had to go up 5 percent or so.

You have to say this, though. The money's being spread around in ways that could pit various interests against each other - and against themselves. Social service agencies may wish to form coalitions of protest, assembling angry throngs in front of the State House. But who'll join? How much complaining should you do if you've gotten an increase, even if it's not enough to do the job?

Maybe what we're seeing is the first year of real government downsizing under this Republican administration. Some have rushed about trying to find a rationale for cutting things such as cancer research. If it's about making government smaller, they can save their energy. Downsizing is its own rationale.

Meanwhile, we're told cancer research can go forward on half the money. So maybe it's the Year of the Free Lunch.

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

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