When the 1991 General Assembly convenes tomorrow, lawmakers will face daunting challenges. With the state and national economies lumbering under the weight of recession, the gap between revenue and spending has become a chasm. More than that, as the economic downturn deepens, and unemployment increases, more Marylanders are forced to turn to social programs. And the costs of those which are mandated, like AFDC and Medicaid, are skyrocketing, leaving far fewer state dollars for other projects. Those programs which are not entitlements, like food banks and soup pantries, are simply falling by the wayside.
Thus lawmakers will confront the hardest kinds of choices this session: identifying needs and determining whether Maryland should enact new taxes to pay for them. The Linowes Commission provides the grist for debate; though Governor Schaefer has said he will not include any of the commission's proposals in his budget, bills to make the income tax more progressive and expand or raise the sales tax are virtually certain to be introduced. The chance that sweeping new taxes will pass is diminished (but not altogether implausible), first because many middle- and working-class families, which might otherwise able to absorb higher taxes, can not do so in the current economic climate. In addition, politicians heard voters loud and clear last November, when they said they wanted a leaner, more efficient government.
Nonetheless, federal cutbacks have left a deteriorating network of roads and bridges; open space is at-risk; education funding is sorely inequitable, and prison costs are out of sight. In reality it's simply not possible to keep providing the level of services people want without new revenue of some sort. What it comes down to, then, is a challenge to lawmakers to establish priorities and make the case to the public that some new taxes are needed to support them. Which ones and how much will be the sticking points.
Among the more politically palatable options, and certainly among the most important goals, is an increase in the state gas tax to keep roads and bridges first-rate and to move ahead with the light-rail system. Access from the port to points West is, after all, one of the big advantages Baltimore has over Norfolk, its chief competitor. And polls repeatedly show that voters would support new fees which are targeted to specific services that they value. Transportation clearly is one.
The General Assembly will, of course, consider other issues. The most important, in our estimation, are stricter gun control, abortion rights, an end to territorial insurance rates and a measure that would provide for statewide planning of growth -- all of which deserve passage this session.
None of it, however, will be easy. The beleaguered economhangs like a rain cloud over every proposal and intention. The watchword will be priorities.