Charles L. Benton, who is Gov. William Donald Schaefer's long-time fiscal wizard, had to pull just about every rabbit out of his magical hat to balance this year's financial blueprint. Plunging revenues, rising costs for mandated programs and a "no new taxes" mood forced him to jerry-rig a budget that is precariously balanced with bubble gum and bailing wire. The $11.6 billion state budget unveiled yesterday calls for overall growth of a mere 1 percent -- the smallest increase in 46 years.
Only by turning to fiscal legerdemain was Mr. Benton able to pull off this feat. Yet in drawing every last surplus penny out of various nooks of state government, the budget director badly depleted Maryland's reserve fund and left the Transportation Department in shambles. Legislators will be hard pressed to avoid raising the gasoline tax if they want roads repaired in the next 18 months.
Mr. Benton claims he exhausted all of the potential one-time savings and traditional cost-reduction methods short of wholesale firings of state workers. "The cupboard is bare," he said, noting that a prolonged recession could mean far greater troubles ahead. Compounding the state's dilemma has been the steep rise in prison, welfare, health and school costs ($328 million) that must be paid. How Maryland will meet 1992's bills already is beginning to alarm state officials.