Is Annapolis ready to provide Baltimore the help it needs?
On Thursday, former Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller rose from the floor to give a “Rome is burning” speech in which he acknowledged Baltimore is “crying out for help” and that lawmakers ought to make the city the focus of their attention. This was surprising on at least two levels. First, it’s never been clear that the Southern Maryland lawmaker has ever been especially attuned to Baltimore during his historic 33 years leading the chamber, while his successor, Sen. Bill Ferguson, actually represents the city. The second is that, well, it’s about time.
Whatever conflagration Baltimore faces now, it’s been raging for years. Murders, low-performing schools, loss of jobs and private investment, racial discrimination, concentrated poverty, police brutality, political corruption, drug addiction and overdose deaths, these are not new cords of firewood heaped on the flames. Even the Freddie Gray unrest was nearly five years ago.
Still, better late than never.
If Senator Miller is serious about addressing Baltimore’s needs — along with the lawmakers who gave his speech bipartisan applause — there are any number of things the General Assembly and Gov. Larry Hogan could do to help.
Step one would be to listen to Baltimore’s elected representatives and citizens. Certain individuals in the State House delight in disrespecting city residents. This may play well with conservative white GOP voters, but it’s poisonous to any effort to find common ground. Nobody in Annapolis has clean hands when it comes to Baltimore’s problems including the current governor.
Next, stop hurting Baltimore. That means resolving the State Center lawsuit that has deprived the city of $1.5 billion in investment. How many thousands of jobs have been lost by this standoff that dates to the Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. administration? Stop starving the city of state transportation aid that’s been diverted to the Washington area (Interstate 270 and the American Legion Bridge representing just the latest examples). Halting the $2.9 billion Red Line was bad enough, but has anyone noticed how dysfunctional city transit remains? It may be time to take the Mass Transit Administration out of state control and set it up as a regional transit authority with its own funding stream. The city needs jobs, but it also needs to offer the means for people to get to them.
Pass a Kirwan education reform mandate. Breaking the cycle of poverty means preparing the next generation for a more productive future. And while they are at it, lawmakers will need to help Baltimore pay its share of that school funding, too. It’s just not realistic to think city taxpayers can come up with hundreds of millions of dollars more as the Kirwan Commission education aid formula currently contemplates. Lawmakers who object to providing greater aid to the city need to be reminded of what decades of segregation and other forms of discriminatory behavior have wrought. The bill for this enormous malfeasance has simply come due.
Be smarter about law enforcement. It isn’t just that Baltimore needs more police on the street, the state needs to put more parole and probation agents out there, too. One-third of victims and suspects in city shootings are under state supervision. Get it? If those individuals are better monitored by parole and probation (if caseloads weren’t so enormous), they are less likely to get into trouble. Experts think it might lower the homicide rate in a matter of months, if not weeks. Police investigate crime, but parole agents might actually be better positioned to prevent it.
Finally, provide help with the relatively small things, too. The city’s problems aren’t just about crime, which is as much a symptom as a cause of its broader problems. The state could fully fund BMore for Healthy Babies (the city’s effort to reduce infant mortality), remove the city’s cap on historic tax credits to encourage more redevelopment of older buildings, and increase aid to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra to help keep it in business. And that’s just scratching the surface of what the folks in the State House might be able to do for their “Rome,” just 30 miles north.
Of course, it’s entirely possible Mr. Miller’s gesture was just meant to rouse his fellow Democrats to support Kirwan education reforms or placate suburban counties worried that city crime is leaking into their jurisdictions. Frankly, we don’t care about the politics of the moment, we’d just like to see a little more firefighting out of those 90-day warriors who admit they see some of the challenges facing this city. Are they ready to do something serious or just observe the smoke? They’ve got until April 6.
State Sen. Thomas V. “Mike” Miller, stepping down as Senate president, talks with new Senate President Bill Ferguson before the opening of the General Assembly in Annapolis.