Budget cutback question: Which pain is unbearable? News analysis

October 04, 1991|By C. Fraser | C. Fraser,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS WDB — ANNAPOLIS -- Armed and uniformed lobbyists, state troopers filling almost every seat in the House of Delegates gallery, helped yesterday to accelerate the whirl of anxiety gripping Annapolis as Maryland's budget trauma continued to shift from abstract numbers to real people.

The troopers came in force to protest Gov. William Donald Schaefer's plan to fire 83 of them, including medevac helicopter pilots and support staff.

The proposal also would shred the safety net for 24,000 of the state's poorest citizens and cut a range of other state programs, including drug-addiction treatment programs, rape crisis centers and prisoner education programs.

These retrenchments will occur, the governor has said, unless "something" happens.

The undefined "something" is new or increased taxes. The pressure for them grew yesterday all over the state. For example:

* Key legislators were preparing an appeal to the governor to back away voluntarily from his decision to fire the troopers -- in exchange for a commitment to work on a series of more comprehensive solutions. At the same time, rank-and-file members of the House of Delegates were planning to file legislation to mandate restoration of the trooper jobs and certain other services.

* Officials at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore grounded the soon-to-be-jobless helicopter pilots for fear they would not be concentrating fully on flying. Parts of Montgomery County and the Eastern Shore were left uncovered by this precaution.

Delegate Timothy F. Maloney, D-Prince George's, said Shock Trauma officials told him: "It's just a matter of time before a life will be lost because of this."

* Addicts and addict counselors found themselves holding placards in Annapolis protesting the cuts -- while applauding state troopers. Nearby, supporters of the state's abolished rape crisis centers waved their own signs calling for their services to be restored.

* A senator prepared legislation that would raise money to save the troopers' jobs, put the helicopters back in service and restore all the other cuts proposed this week. Few gave the bill much of a chance.

* House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, said the General Assembly may eventually choose to ease the budget pressure by allowing local governments to raise local income taxes to pay for education. But he said again that he opposes a special legislative session now until more comprehensive solutions are decided upon.

The governor continued to avoid the word "tax," but radio talk-show callers and legislators accused him of playing a game of political leverage:increasing the pain level to prompt support for a tax increase, which he has favored since last January.

On WBAL's weekly call-in radio show yesterday, Mr. Schaefer said his task is to balance the budget and there is no present alternative to the cuts.

With a $450 million budget gap this year and a bigger one just over the horizon next year, the choices were clear: more revenue or more cuts. The state constitution requires the legislature to pass a balanced budget, and the governor cited his responsibility to keep it in balance.

But Mr. Schaefer's apparent strategy has sometimes been called "firemen first": Governmental budget-balancers cut services that everyone needs and wants in the hope that people will be willing to pay more to guarantee them and other, less popular, services.

The governor emphatically denied that he was acting to prove a point or for any other reason other than to balance the budget. And whether he had a conscious strategy or not, the pain would almost certainly have been felt. In the end, some legislators say, both deep cuts and new taxes may be unavoidable.

The gamble in a "firemen first" approach is that Marylanders might resign themselves to fewer state policemen or medevac helicopters and actually applaud the cuts.

House Speaker Mitchell is one of those who applauded, though he said he wants to see the House analysis of spending before he endorses specifics such as firing the troopers.

"We've been used to having everything at our fingertips in the state of Maryland," he said. "That's been great. That's been nice, but we're to the point now where we don't have the money to pay for things. We have to look back and reflect. That's what the governor did."

No one who called Governor Schaefer on the talk show yesterday volunteered to pay more taxes. Radio hosts and television station pollsters say sentiment is running strongly in favor of the cuts.

"I've been an unashamed Governor Schaefer-basher for many years," said a man who identified himself as Sean from Columbia, "but I have come to praise him today, not to bury him. I think he's done a wonderful thing."

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