Coping with the Budget Crisis

October 07, 1991

Gov. William Donald Schaefer, after taking a pounding for trying to face up to the state's fiscal budget crisis, has succeeded in forcing General Assembly leaders to begin confronting their own responsibilities. This is a major step forward.

Top lawmakers still shy away from the need for new tax revenues or other long-term solutions to recession-induced difficulties. But by agreeing to come up with short-term alternatives by Wednesday to the painful remedies proposed by the governor, they will find out soon enough that there are no easy answers.

The trial balloon floated this past weekend would shift more of the burden of governance from Annapolis to the local subdivisions. Wealthy counties still enjoying budget surpluses perhaps could absorb some loss of state aid to education, teacher pension costs and local transportation. For Baltimore City, however, and poor rural counties, this would mere compound a situation Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke rightly called a "tragedy."

Mr. Schaefer's original plan, which may be likened to a two-by-four applied to the head of a donkey, got the attention of legislators. It threatened cuts in state police personnel, Medevac services, treatment and counseling programs and welfare allowances for some 24,000 Marylanders on welfare. "The poorest of the poor," the governor described them.

These cuts would have cost Baltimore City more than $21 million -- a sum equal to a 26-cent jump in what already is the state's highest tax rate. No wonder Mayor Schmoke championed an emergency session of the General Assembly. Cutting state aid programs, alas, would cost even more -- thus underscoring the city's plight at a moment when the votes are just not there in Annapolis to pass a Linowes-style plan for state tax reforms. State leaders should think long and hard before raiding mandated state aid and entitlement programs. To the extent this would increase already disturbing inequities between rich and poor subdivisions, they should be avoided.

Marylanders can take some comfort from the fact that circumstances are forcing the executive and legislative branches to begin reasoning together. The numbers cannot be wished away: A $400 million shortfall this fiscal year; a deficit of up to double that amount in the next budget year.

These gaps between income and outgo cannot be closed without layoffs, reductions in vital services, a severe downsizing in state government and increases in taxes. Members of the General Assembly, by putting the squeeze on the subdivisions, may hope that grassroots sentiment may change from tax revolt to a revulsion against a deteriorating quality of life in Maryland. But the budget calendar cannot wait. Sooner rather than later, House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller will have to display the courage and take some of the flak that has been the lot of Governor Schaefer in recent days.

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