$243 million slashed to balance state budget

January 03, 1991|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- Cornered by bad economic times, the Board of Public Works agreed yesterday, as expected, to scale back state government spending by another $243 million to bring the current year's budget back into balance.

For the first time in this current budget crisis, and apparently for the first time since the early 1980s, the reductions will result in at least some layoffs of state workers.

As announced late last week, the three-member board chaired by Gov. William Donald Schaefer approved as part of its cost-cutting the elimination of 51 state jobs. Most of them are in a state meat and poultry inspection program that will be taken over by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The rest are in a small computer assistance unit within the Department of Budget and Fiscal Planning.

The state has approximately 62,000 employees plus another 25,000 at the University of Maryland and about 10,000 contractual workers.

This latest round of cuts brings to $423 million the total amount of expenditures deleted from the budget for the year that ends June 30, or that will be deleted with the passage of legislation by the 1991 General Assembly.

Mr. Schaefer's unhappiness at having to take such action was evident.

He complained of being squeezed by public pressure and bad economic times to scale back government, yet of being blamed by protesters for cutbacks in virtually any government service.

"In every area that you make a reduction, there's a group that comes in and protests," he said. In the face of such criticism, the governor has already reversed himself twice on proposed cuts and was forced by legislators to accept alternatives to an original plan to lay off as many as 1,800 state employees.

Mr. Schaefer was particularly angry yesterday at the state's community colleges, which separately fired off at least 10 letters to the board complaining about reductions in their budgets.

The governor described their cuts as "relatively small" and said that he was "utterly amazed" that the community colleges did not accept the reductions the way other agencies did.

Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein, a Board of Public Works member who also chairs the Board of Visitors at Washington College in Chestertown, noted that state grants to private colleges were being cut by 10 percent, about twice the average cuts for the community colleges.

"I told them, 'There's nothing you can do about it. You have to live with it,' " Mr. Goldstein said. State officials have a constitutional responsibility to balance the budget, he added.

"There's nothing else we can do as responsible public officials," he said.

State Treasurer Lucille Maurer, the third member of the board, said she generally supported the cost-cutting plan, but was worried that the reductions in state aid may not be spread logically among community colleges or other local programs.

The administration plan spread out such reductions to all jurisdictions evenly, but then adjusted the reductions so that several of the state's poorest jurisdictions would not be hurt and those counties with lower-than-average property tax rates would be penalized.

As a result, she said by way of example, Chesapeake College in Wye Mills complained that its reduction amounts to a 14.5 percent cut in state aid, primarily because of the low property tax rate of Talbot County -- one of five counties that support the school -- was an integral part of the calculation.

Since the college does not set the property tax rate, she said, penalizing the school may not be the fairest way to spread out the reductions.

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