Even before the much-ballyhooed hearing on the Schaefer administration's $800 million tax restructuring bill last Friday, Chairman Laurence Levitan pronounced the proposal dead for the 1991 legislative session. So much for impartial hearings. And so much for high-quality education at Maryland's state colleges and universities.
Of all the areas where budget cutbacks have taken a toll, higher education is among the biggest losers. All the enhancement aid given to the University of Maryland has been stripped away to the point that these campuses will receive less money next year than they were given two years ago. A university making vast strides is now struggling to tread water -- and is losing the battle.
The only way to preserve the progress of the last few years would be to adopt portions of the Linowes commission's tax restructuring plan. That would enable lawmakers to avoid making the kinds of harmful budget cuts that would force the University of Maryland to eliminate entire academic departments, withdraw from prestigious foundation programs and lower the caliber of public education for Maryland's college-age students.
Yet there was Senator Levitan pronouncing the death knell for the Linowes proposal -- though the testimony that followed showed strong support for much of the plan. Legislative leaders are making a serious mistake they could regret later by not trying to meld the plan with their own ideas for balancing the state budget. It could help them avoid chopping too much from sensitive and important social programs.
Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg earlier floated the notion of an "interim" $200 million tax overhaul that still could be resurrected. The Steinberg plan, plus sensible budget-cutting reductions, would be sufficient to balance the budget, continue progressive programs at the University of Maryland, avoid precipitous cuts in programs for the needy and at the same time help make the state's tax system more progressive by increasing the tax burden on the richest citizens.
Simply hacking away at social programs to achieve a two-year savings of $700 million is not the answer. That is too severe. While there is still time, lawmakers ought to think once again about adopting a combination of sensible tax revisions and reductions in non-essential spending. If the legislature tilts too much in either direction, the damage to Maryland's future prospects could be considerable.