Tucked between the lines of new Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s penny-pinching budget plan are some startlingly generous proposals -- more than $30 million in initiatives or expanded programs for the disabled, the elderly and troubled teenagers, among others.
Aides said yesterday that the new programs fulfill commitments Ehrlich (R) made on the campaign trail, many reflecting his philosophy that the state should help people move out of institutions and into independent living situations. But even the interest groups that had hounded him on such issues all last year expressed astonishment that the governor had come through in such an austere financial climate.
"We just didn't expect those funds this year," Diane McComb, executive director of the Maryland Association of Community Services, said of Ehrlich's plan to expand job-training and care for adults with developmental disabilities.
In addition, Ehrlich managed to find $194 million to wipe out deficits that had forced the closure of clinics and reduction of services throughout the state's Medicaid and mental health care systems.
"I would think some folks would say you probably need more," said Deron Johnson, a lobbyist for the Maryland Psychological Association. "But he has other budget priorities, and it's a very good start."
With a projected revenue shortfall of $1.8 billion over the next 18 months, Ehrlich presented a $22.8 billion budget that he says can be balanced without increasing taxes or draining the state's reserves. His budget relies in part on a proposal to raise $400 million through slot machines at Maryland's racetracks, a plan that faces a highly uncertain future in the General Assembly.
Despite concerns that the initiatives might not survive in the legislature, advocates took heart from Ehrlich's show of munificence, which some never expected from the state's first Republican governor in more than 30 years.
"Bravo that he came through on his campaign promises," said Stacey Gurian-Sherman, director of Juvenile Justice Family Advocacy Initiative and Resources.
Among Ehrlich's budget initiatives are $11 million for juvenile justice services, including a state takeover of educational programs at a Baltimore County detention center for teenage boys that advocates believed were inadequate. The new funding would also create "drug court" programs, designed to direct young offenders into treatment rather than incarceration, and provide for a study of racial disparity within the juvenile justice system.
The budget also includes nearly $4 million for programs to help young people with developmental disabilities make the transition from special-education programs to job training. The program is not new, but it was cut from the budget of former Democratic governor Parris N. Glendening.
Ehrlich's plan also proposes $7.4 million for adults with similar disabilities who seek job training or need help when their caretakers become ill.
McComb said she and other advocates had lobbied Ehrlich for such funding last year, introducing him to three disabled adults who had moved out of institutions with the help of community groups. But she said she did not expect the funding to materialize this year, McComb said.
Health care activists praised Ehrlich's decision to wipe out the state's $128 million Medicaid deficit, which had squeezed reimbursements to physicians and left poor people with fewer choices for medical care.
Michael Preston, executive director of Medchi, an organization that represents doctors, warned that demands on Medicaid will continue to grow, because of increasing unemployment and an aging population, and that Ehrlich's proposal left unclear how the state would keep up. But he called the allotment "wonderful and extraordinary," given the budget crunch.
David McNear, a budget analyst for Advocates for Children and Youth, said his organization is "very thankful" that Ehrlich funded a $148 million plan to reduce disparities among public schools and added $10 million to hire more child welfare workers. An audit last year found that state social workers had lost track of dozens of children for months at a time, and Glendening never fully funded a 1998 commitment by the General Assembly to add 215 workers.
"This is an example of Governor Ehrlich fulfilling a commitment for children that was never fulfilled by Governor Glendening," McNear said. But McNear warned of some trouble spots in the budget that could undercut the benefit of the initiatives, including child-care subsidies cut by $25 million and funds greatly reduced for after-school programs.
Among other initiatives in Ehrlich's budget:
* $2.9 million to reduce individual caseloads for public defenders. The Supreme Court recently agreed to hear the case of a Maryland death-row inmate who says that sloppy work by his public defender led to his conviction. The new money would allow the office to hire 30 lawyers and 20 additional staff members.
* $3.6 million to expand a program that allows senior citizens to hire home health aides to help them make the transition from nursing homes back into their homes. About 1,000 additional people would be covered by the increase.
* $800,000 to allow people with traumatic brain injuries to hire aides to help them move out of institutions back into their homes. Officials said about a dozen people across Maryland could be helped by such grants.
Staff writer Jo Becker contributed to this report.