Saving $185 Million

February 10, 1991|By BARRY RASCOVAR | BARRY RASCOVAR,Barry Rascovar is deputy editor of the editorial pages of The Sun.

WE'RE IN A RECESSION. The governor can't keep up with th constantly declining revenue estimates. More cutbacks are certain. Legislators intend to chop additional sums from the governor's fiscal program.

Yet one part of the budget reads like a "Happy Days Are Here Again" refrain. The capital budget looks as fat and happy as in prior years, when economic forecasts were rosy. The governor is seeking $815 million in construction funds, only slightly less than last year.

There's money for garages, renovations, art for public buildings, a college swimming pool, state park comfort stations, new prison gatehouses, new college racquetball courts and other dubious spending.

If we are indeed struggling to make ends meet, it is time to get serious about the capital budget. Projects that normally would be approved without question may not be so lucky. Every agency and interest group could see projects delayed or diminished. But in a recession, this ought to be standard operating procedure.

A cursory review is all it takes to pick out obvious cuts. My list totals $185 million. The state would cut in half its issuance of general obligation bonds and cut by one-third its pay-as-you-go spending on construction.

The net result would be a savings in interest payments and expenses of $24 million -- almost enough to offset the Christmas-time slump in tax revenues.

Some suggested cutbacks:

* $50 million from the lease-conversion program. The idea is to buy downtown office buildings and end rental payments by state agencies. But the governor wants to do it all at once, for $88 million. A three-year phase-in would save a bundle.

* $20 million for a new business school building at the University of Baltimore. This is a fine idea, but let's wait till after the recession to build President H. Mebane Turner another academic monument.

* $7 million from public school construction. This general fund money could be used for better purposes in 1991. There would still be $53 million in bonds for the most pressing school-building needs.

* $5.7 million to expand Douglass Library at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. This project can be delayed. So can a $2.1 million plan to embark on major landscaping at UMES.

* $3.4 million to expand College Park's McKeldin Library, plus $4 million for a new fire station, $900,000 for campus roads, $3.5 million for plant science and animal science buildings and $600,000 for an "International Center." These can wait, too.

* $5 million to help Johns Hopkins Hospital build a cancer center. When there's not enough money for state agencies, why help out private institutions?

* $6 million to private colleges for new buildings. The first priority in a recession ought to be the state's own colleges.

Other projects can be postponed or phased in, such as `f equipment for UMBC's computer science building; renovations at Charlotte Hall Veterans Home; senior citizen centers in Rosedale and Aberdeen; six small creek restoration projects; replacement of water lines at Spring Grove Hospital and the reconfiguration of UMAB's Haden Harris Hall, Salisbury State's dining hall expansion, St. Mary's College's new academic building and repairs to Morgan State's Holmes Hall.

Among prime contenders for reductions are the new racquetball courts at St. Mary's College; the Arts in Public Spaces program, which wants to spend $250,000 in bond money (an unhealthy precedent) on two new buildings; paving the Naval Academy Athletic Association's parking lot for $2.5 million; $2 million for a back-up state computer facility; grants to community colleges; an aquaculture loan fund, and $1.1 to fix up New Germany State Park for winter use (though the park was closed this winter to save money).

Prison spending ($60 million) deserves special scrutiny. The cost estimates are superficial. A number of construction projects, such as new visitor centers, gatehouses and service buildings, aren't high-priority items.

And the biggest question of all: Can the state afford a mind-boggling $170 million for a 2,500-bed prison in Western Maryland?

Administration officials want $3.5 million this year, though they don't yet have a site and admit cost estimates are speculative and subject to (upward) revision. Until legislators receive specifics, this project ought to be shelved.

Finally, Assembly leaders should make the ultimate sacrifice to demonstrate their commitment to frugal budgeting: Reduce the $15 million set aside for "legislative initiatives" (i.e., pork-barrel projects) by at least 20 percent. It would be a wrenching decision, but even politicians sometimes have to rise above their natural instincts.

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