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Is it bad politics to help people?

The catastrophe in Haiti puts everything in perspective — politics, health care bills, football playoffs, you name it.

But, of course, less dramatic crises don’t go away.

President Obama still needs 60 votes to pass the health care bill. The Ravens still need wide receivers.

And there’s still a $2 billion gap between obligations and anticipated income as Maryland lawmakers try to balance the state’s budget. That exercise won’t begin to compare to the rescue mission in Port-au-Prince, but there will be pain in Maryland cities as well.

There are those who are eager to say that the calamity in Haiti is as much a matter of criminal misdeeds as the financial collapse was in the United States. Natural or manmade, mere mortals are left to suffer and to clean up. It was ever thus.

Cuts in mental health

There will be suffering in Maryland, though the severity has been deferred once again until next year, as Gov. Martin O’Malley and the General Assembly try to close the budget gap.

As always, the community of mental health care advocates will be among the first to absorb the cuts. The advocates will resist, as always. They will take on the suspicion that government “programs” are the enemy.

Despite stresses on many families, there remain those government critics who say no to everything.

“People still think the state’s money is going down a hole,” said Linda Raines, executive director of the Mental Health Association of Maryland,

The reality is otherwise. Demand for non-institutional, community-based services — far less expensive — has more than doubled between 2003 and 2009. And, according to a ranking compiled at the University of Colorado, Maryland — one of the richest states in the union — devotes 21 percent less to community services for the developmentally disabled than the average state.

“We were in a crisis when things were good,” said Lori Doyle, a community mental health advocate.

In the 2009 fiscal year, the state’s Mental Hygiene Administration absorbed more than 50 percent of the state’s budget cuts. This disparity occurs because other areas of the state budget — public education and corrections — tend to be off the cutting board.

Meanwhile, the needs are growing perhaps because economically distressed families, diverted from care-giving to concentrate on earning, need help.

The status quo is always the enemy at budget time. The mental health and developmentally disabled budget have traditionally been shortchanged. So what else is new this year?

Actually, improvement has been achieved, but every recession erodes progress. “When these programs are cut, they don’t come back,” says Doyle.

A test of political will

As they contemplate a strategy that will get the attention of the budget-cutters, a coalition of providers asks itself if legislators know how much voting power the coalition represents.

“They get the need,” one of the coalition members said. “They just don’t have the political will to address it meaningfully.”

What the advocates want is a tax on alcoholic beverages — 10 cents a drink — that would raise an estimated $211 million per year.

The assembly has essentially slammed the door on new taxes for this year. There’s an election this year and Democrats see taxes as the new (or old) third rail. Touch it and die. So the subject hardly comes up.

Like the legislators, advocates saw pictures of anti-tax demonstrators waving anti-government signs outside the governor’s mansion. Former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was with them, fueling speculation that he will run against this year.

His anti-tax stand notwithstanding, Ehrlich has had fans in the mental health community.

“He considered it a core government service,” said Linda Raines.

The coalition’s needs — and the 10-cents-a-drink tax issue — are being championed by Del. Bill Bronrott and Sen. Rich Madaleno, both of Montgomery County. They are urging their colleagues to see that Maryland gets a double dividend — $211 million a year and less drinking, and therefore less loss of life and cost to the state.

The liquor lobby argues that a tax in Maryland would send consumers to Delaware and the District of Columbia, where the tax would be lower.

The coalition scoffs. It argues that the assembly will favor the industry over people who are suffering.

In the end, there remains this question for the governor and the assembly:

“If not this, then what?” asks Brian Cox, executive director of the Maryland Developmental Disabilities Council. “No is not an answer.”

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears weekly in The Daily Record. His e-mail address is fsmith@wypr.org.