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Quick and Dirty

Cut From the Budget

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 2/2/2005

Baltimore City could lose crucial funds for lead-poisoning prevention, if Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s proposed budget passes the legislature unchanged. The amount of money cut from the city’s lead-paint initiative is miniscule compared to the $25.9 billion state budget—about $180,000. But Ruth Ann Norton, executive director of the nonprofit Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, says that “any reduction in lead poisoning prevention is going in the wrong direction.”

The cut from the lead-paint initiative, which funds a lawyer who helps enforce laws requiring landlords to make their rental units “lead safe,” was among dozens of small adjustments in the governor’s budget that shift money from cities and counties to state agencies in a bid for better efficiency. Baltimore also faces the loss of $1.5 million in state grants for open space, according to an analysis by Department of Legislative Services’ Office of Policy Analysis.

The governor says his budget has a $600 million surplus. But Legislative Services’ director of policy analysis Warren Deschenaux, who briefed the legislature’s Budget and Taxation and Appropriations committees on Jan. 24, says the budget contains $140 million derived by possibly faulty accounting tricks, and has a $319 million “structural deficit”—the amount of budget shortfall that would occur absent one-time “revenue enhancements,” measures that will temporarily reduce spending or increase funding in different areas.

Amid the larger arguments over slot machines and one-shot budget fixes vs. new taxes, details like the lead-paint issue received little attention at the briefing. That is changing.

“We have been in touch with the governor’s office,” Norton says, “working on a proposal for supplemental funding.”

Although Deschenaux estimated the cut at $375,000, Norton says the actual loss to the program is probably less. The $375,000 figure comes from the amount taken from the Baltimore City Health Department, but some $147,000 will go to the state’s own lawyers at the Maryland Department of the Environment, who will concentrate on Baltimore. Norton estimates the Department of the Environment will hire one or two new positions with that money. “The Ehrlich administration wants ‘outcome-based performance budgets,’ and ‘deliverables,’” Norton says. The administration says state lawyers “return a bigger bang for the buck.”

Norton says the number of city children testing at elevated lead levels has declined by almost 91 percent since 1993. The problem of childhood lead poisoning is not just in Baltimore but throughout the state, she acknowledges. The answer is not to make cuts, she says, but to add money to prevention programs like hers. “We have an opportunity here—we should be putting millions into lead prevention, not hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Norton says. “My bottom line to Ehrlich is: You want lead-safe [housing], fund it.”

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