New budget wrangle opens old wounds Beneath the calm, governor and legislators still peeved.

May 21, 1991|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Evening Sun Staff

Like surgeons of old, top Maryland lawmakers are getting fairly skilled at bleeding the state budget these days. They should be. After all, they've taken scalpels to the 1991 fiscal budget four times since it was first devised by the governor and then reshaped and passed by the General Assembly early last year.

But don't be fooled if all this budget surgery is beginning to look too routine, too painless. The harsh consequences, both political and fiscal, are not far off. And even from this distance they take on all the signs of new taxes, renewed cries for layoffs of state employees and continued fighting between the governor and the legislature.

Maryland's latest budget emergency, an estimated $109 million revenue shortfall made public only last week, could be resolved dTC unofficially as early as today if Gov. William Donald Schaefer gives the nod to a prescription of cuts proposed jointly by the resident bean-counters on his staff and the legislature's.

Because portions of the budget balancing plan require action by the General Assembly, lawmakers are expected to give their official approval -- little more than a formality -- when they are recalled to Annapolis for a special one- or two-day session in the week before the current fiscal year ends June 30.

On the surface, the normally nasty business of dealing with yet another projected shortfall -- this latest brings the total budget cuts and adjustments to about $660 million -- appears to be moving along swimmingly.

From his State House quarters, we have the governor suggesting that this is as good a time as any for the executive and legislative bodies to put aside their differences and work together. And then we have both House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr. and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. pledging publicly to assure taxpayers -- and the New York bond rating houses -- that when money is tight, Maryland politicians can put aside petty concerns and work as a team to solve the problem.

They'll solve the problem, for sure. But not without having first reopened some of the old familiar wounds inflicted in previous bouts between the legislature and the governor. The legislative happy face is a facade.

To start with, Senate leadership is peeved with Schaefer over how the latest projected shortfall was made public. Schaefer's fiscal analysts kept most of the bothersome details to themselves until the governor dropped his budget bombshell at a private lunch in the Governor's Mansion with key legislators in Annapolis a week ago.

Uncharacteristically, Schaefer asked Senate and House leaders to work with his budget staff on ways to absorb the deficit. He also asked them to agree to a special session during which the budget solution would be approved even before such a solution had been found. And then, characteristically, the governor advised the lunch guests that they should be the ones to meet with the press later in the day to disclose the new budget woes.

Miller, for one, went to the mansion to be fed. He left fed up. "We're doing this backwards," the Prince George's Democrat would later remark of the budget-solving process, pointing out that it is the governor's responsibility to propose the remedies.

While others prepared to break the bad news to the public, the governor chatted with a Polish delegation visiting the State House and then got ready to meet the Queen of England at the British Embassy in Washington.

All this does not sit well with some lawmakers, who claim the Schaefer administration has failed to perform its budget duties. On the other hand, the governor makes it clear in his view that the state's money problems should be laid at the feet of the legislature, which turned thumbs down this past session on his so-called Linowes tax package to raise $800 million annually in new revenues. It's a specious argument on Schaefer's part because his proposed taxes would have done nothing to cure the current ailments.

But the legislature's anti-tax votes of the 1991 session may prove to be a hollow victory in the continuing war against Schaefer. After the current budget shortfall is contained, lawmakers and the governor must turn their attention to the 1992 budget. Analysts suggest that the coming fiscal plan already faces a $150 million shortfall and that revenues could fall off in even greater numbers if the economy does not rebound to pre-recession days.

That possibility has prompted subtle talk in Annapolis of scheduling a third special legislative session during this calendar year. The first, of course, is the end-of-June session to patch up the 1991 budget. Then there's the September session to review plans to redraw congressional election districts. The third, and possibly the most divisive, could be a winter session to pass emergency tax measures to save the 1992 budget from drowning in its own red ink.

Taxes or no taxes, lawmakers know the surest way to relieve some of the fiscal pressure is to cut into the base of the budget. And in Maryland as in all states, a good-sized chunk of the base is the government work force. State House denizens, including some close to the governor, privately but authoritatively concede that many of the 80,000 or so state employees must go if lawmakers are looking for longtime budget solutions.

Schaefer and key lawmakers toyed with layoffs this past session, but retreated before union pressure and some public outcry. They relied upon attrition and a freeze on several thousand unfilled vacancies. But, as the latest projected shortfall indicates, that simply was not enough to solve the problem.

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