What Recession?

February 11, 1991

Looking at Gov. William Donald Schaefer's $1.8 billion capital budget for next year, it is hard to believe that Maryland is in the midst of a substantial recession. The total set aside for construction is only slightly less than 1991, and that's because of severe problems in the Transportation Department and the need to reduce pay-as-you-go projects. Maryland continues to issue a hefty amount of bonds to put up new government buildings and support economic development initiatives.

Over the past five years, construction spending, excluding transportation, has risen nearly 200 percent. Even with the economy's downturn and the smallest operating budget growth in 46 years, Mr. Schaefer continues to put his emphasis on the state's infrastructure.

Yet this may not be the time for expansive spending. A slimmed-down capital budget would modestly reduce interest payments on state bonds and curb the amount of money diverted from the general fund for construction. Essential projects ought to continue -- especially in the areas of economic development, health, prisons and education -- but others deserve close scrutiny.

For instance, is this the year to build a slew of parking garages for state workers and renovate state office buildings for $26 million? Should the state spend $6 million on facilities for private colleges? Should Maryland give Johns Hopkins $5 million this year (and $25 million in the future) for a new cancer center?

In times of prosperity, these might be wise investments. But with the economy deteriorating, a more prudent approach seems necessary.

Legislators also ought to examine the governor's $88 million plan to buy private offices for state agencies as a substitute for leased space. This sensible program could be phased in gradually. Some higher education projects could be delayed, too, such as the University of Baltimore's $20 million business school building; College Park's $3 million library addition and its $3.3 million fire station project, and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore's $5.7 million library addition.

In pruning the governor's requests, lawmakers should support projects that could spur growth and stimulate the economy. The most prominent in this package are $1.5 million for the Christopher Columbus marine research center, $2 million for an exciting bioprocessing facility and $2 million to begin enlarging the Convention Center. These undertakings could greatly enhance tax revenues, employment and Maryland's economy. They are the crown jewels in this year's capital budget.

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