Md. left reeling by cuts Schaefer spends day detailing fiscal plight

October 02, 1991|By John W. Frece and C. Fraser Smith | John W. Frece and C. Fraser Smith,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun Gelareh Asayesh of The Sun's metropolitan staff contributed to this article.

ANNAPOLIS -- Gov. William Donald Schaefer's plan to eliminate a $450 million budget deficit by firing workers and cutting deeply into government services left legislators and advocates for the poor reeling yesterday, but if the objective was start a legislative groundswell in favor of new taxes, the effort fell short.

Governor Schaefer, who described his long day of bad-news briefings as one of the "toughest and saddest" of his political career, refused to talk about new or increased taxes -- although the subject was clearly on his mind.

He invited Sen. Laurence Levitan, D-Montgomery, to lunch yesterday to explore ways of gathering support for a proposal made several weeks ago by Mr. Levitan to raise the sales tax almost immediately from 5 percent to 6 percent.

At a news conference later, the governor suggested "something could happen" to cushion the impact between now and Nov. 1, when the cuts he announced yesterday are to go into effect.

"If something can happen between now and November . . . then we may be able to adjust some of the serious cuts that are being made. . . . If nothing happens, this will go forward," he said.

Repeatedly pressed for clarification, Mr. Schaefer turned the questions aside -- but he suggested that a better-educated populace might want to find ways to save programs that are now threatened by the cuts.

"Are we our brother's keeper? Have we reached the point of compassion burnout where we just don't care anymore?" the governor asked.

The governor said that after he held a special briefing yesterday afternoon for advocates for the poor, they sat in stunned silence.

Roman Catholic Archbishop William H. Keeler of Baltimore issued a statement urging a collaborative effort by the governor, the legislature and the business community to find help for "the most vulnerable in our state who may suffer most because of the present fiscal crisis."

Senator Levitan said he told the governor that the deficit-reduction plan and its harsh impact "will have to sit for a little while to see what the special interest groups do -- primarily the special interest group that is the private citizen."

There was considerable agreement with that assessment.

The president of the state Senate, Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's, said any talk of raising taxes was "premature." But he criticized Mr. Schaefer for specific program and personnel cuts, labeling the governor's decision to ax the jobs of 83 state troopers "sheer insanity."

The speaker of the House of Delegates, R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, who believes a sharp reduction in the size of government is what the public wants, called the governor's plan tough but necessary.

"I stand by him," Mr. Mitchell said, putting off any talk of taxes at least until the regular General Assembly convenes in January.

Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg -- voicing a concern mentioned by some rank-and-file lawmakers -- said he thought Mr. Schaefer should have consulted with the members of the General Assembly before making his proposals. In more than 20 years of service in Annapolis, Mr. Steinberg said, he has found that major problems requiring a joint solution have always been worked out through consultation between the legislative and executive branches.

House Majority Leader D. Bruce Poole, D-Washington, said: "I think the effect that was expected may not be what is received. I have heard some people talk about taxes, but a lot more say there was a better way to deal with these cuts. I haven't heard any large mushroom of sentiment for a tax increase."

approved today as expected by the state Board of Public Works, the governor's plan will cost 1,766 state employees their jobs; eliminate millions of dollars in aid to the state's poor and infirm; close parks; eliminate medevac bases; slash local health services; reverse recent spending increases for higher education; and reduce or do away with scores of other programs on which Marylanders have come to depend.

The governor unveiled the plan before an audience of 300 to 400 local and state officials and community leaders in Crownsville early yesterday morning -- a grim briefing punctuated by jeers and sarcastic laughter from some of the more than 100 state troopers who showed up in uniform to protest layoffs in their ranks.

"I'm willing to listen to any of you where we can change this," the governor said. "This is not in concrete, but it is a slurry that is going to get hard very soon."

He added with determination: "We are going to cut $450 million."

In deliberate fashion, Mr. Schaefer recounted the four rounds of budget cuts over the past year that wiped out every pool of money the state had stashed away. He talked about the effects of a nagging recession that has already sapped $262 million from the tax revenue the state had expected to take in, and that has simultaneously pushed up welfare, Medicaid, unemployment and prison costs.

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