The 414th session of the Maryland General Assembly was minutes from beginning when Sen. Ulysses Currie (D-Forestville) slipped into the Senate chamber to claim his seat.
All around him, the place was buzzing.
Lawmakers were showing off their new babies. Politicians, lobbyists and activists were shaking hands, slapping backs and wishing one another well as they prepared to duke it out for their share of the biggest surplus the state has ever seen.
As he waited for the starting bell, Currie, chairman of the Prince George's Senate delegation, thought about the county's legislative agenda and the high profile push to secure funding to build new schools and the National Harbor resort project.
Then, he said, he thought about the addicts--the men and women who are hooked on drugs, alcohol and cigarettes with few places in the county to go for help.
According to state and local health officials, the county has 37,000 drug addicts, the second-highest number in the state, after Baltimore.
On this day of pomp and circumstance, it was the down-on-their-luck Prince Georgians that Currie wanted to talk about, the one group of people, he said, that county lawmakers should be adamant about as they begin their battle for dollars.
He calls this the "other side" of Prince George's, the side he hopes does not get lost as the county tries to elevate itself economically and socially.
"It's a difficult issue to talk about at a time when you're also talking about a county that is moving upward," said Currie, referring to the upper-middle-class residents moving into the county and demanding high-end services. "It becomes a question of: Is the glass half-empty or half-full? We've got amazing things going on in Prince George's, but we also have this problem of addiction and what to do about it."
Indeed, many of Currie's concerns were the subject of a forum last week that addressed the two sides of Prince George's, the affluent outer-Beltway communities, where half-a-million-dollar homes are now commonplace, and the inner-Beltway cities and towns, where many of the addiction problems are concentrated.
But former County Council member Hilda Pemberton, now vice president of legislative affairs for Dimensions Healthcare System, said Prince Georgians need not worry that the "other side" of the county will be lost in the battle for dollars and attention in Annapolis.
Although county lawmakers will ask for $44 million to continue with the ambitious plan to build 13 schools and millions more to fund the harbor project, they also plan to request $31 million from the state's $4.4 billion tobacco settlement to add drug-treatment and smoking-cessation programs.
Pemberton, who heads a work group studying ways to spend the county's share of tobacco money, said the $31 million would help pay for the expansion of residential and outpatient treatment and smoking-cessation programs--such as the county Health Department's methadone maintenance program, which has more addicts than available slots, and its program for children and their addicted parents, which is also in high demand.
"Are there enough here? No," said Pemberton about services for addicts. "We need someplace where folks can [get] treatment on demand."
In making their case for the tobacco money, county lawmakers will argue that Prince George's, like Baltimore, deserves a larger share of the fund than other jurisdictions because more of their residents die of smoking-related diseases.
"I don't know what the governor plans to do, but we're going to try to convince him that giving us and Baltimore more money is the right thing to do," said County Council Chairman Dorothy F. Bailey (D-Temple Hills), a former county director of family services who had to turn away drug-addicted mothers and their children because there weren't services or beds.
Currie said he fears that without a decent chunk of the tobacco money, many problems will fester.
"We are beset by so many problems," he said. "If we can get rid of some of the drug problems, then I believe we'll be able to stop addicts from sticking up people and causing some of these other crimes."
CAPTION: Sen. Ulysses Currie outlines his priorities in Landover.