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Ehrlich's Proposals For Children Mask Cuts, Advocates Say

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 30, 2005; Page C01

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. surrounded himself with fidgety preschoolers last week as he ticked off proposals from his "year of the child" legislative agenda, including $103 million next year for a program to help low-income parents afford day care.

Left unmentioned at his news conference was that the state spent $106 million -- $3 million more -- on the same program last year. And that Ehrlich is reducing money for a statewide network that helps parents find child care.

Likewise, when the governor announced legislation aimed at reducing lead poisoning among children, he didn't say that his budget would cut a $375,000 grant that Baltimore has used to seek compliance with lead-paint regulations.

And when he touted an advertising campaign to inform parents about educating children younger than 5, he didn't say his budget would cut $800,000 from a program that teaches parenting skills.

Such details have tempered child advocates' reactions as Ehrlich (R) embraces their causes.

The governor's stepped-up focus on children is welcome, especially in a tight budget year, they said, and his agenda includes what they believe are worthy initiatives, including substantial funding increases for foster care and school construction. But in several instances, what Ehrlich is proposing falls well short of his rhetoric, the advocates say.

"There are some positive steps here, but this is hardly the Marshall Plan for kids," said Sharon Rubinstein, communications director for Advocates for Children and Youth, a Maryland nonprofit group.

Last week, Ehrlich said his administration "is serious about providing the tools needed to help our most vulnerable children grow up safe and succeed in life."

His budget secretary, Chip DiPaula Jr., said in an interview that the amount of money spent on a program is not always the best measure of the governor's commitment to its success.

Some of the increased support Ehrlich is touting is money he had little choice but to spend. A news release from his office, for example, advertised his "historic commitments to students in the classroom," referring to a proposed increase of $432 million for kindergarten through 12th grade education.

Most of that money, however, was mandated by an education bill passed by the General Assembly in 2002.

Ehrlich did not provide the $54 million recommended by the legislation for additional aid to counties with higher costs of living or more special needs students. That money would be forthcoming only if the legislature legalizes slot-machine gambling, which could generate hundreds of millions in new revenue, Ehrlich has said.

The administration's proposed spending on child-care subsidies is one case of an initiative that is not as far-reaching as it appears, child advocates say.

The program is designed to serve families on welfare and those with low incomes who can't afford child care. Assisting the working poor is important, advocates say, to help them stay off welfare.

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