Public school aid seen as sacrifice to save programs House, Senate to propose swap of cuts to budget

October 09, 1991|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- Nearly paralyzed by the no-win choices before them, the House of Delegates and a sharply divided Senate reluctantly agreed yesterday to ask the governor to cut state aid for public schools in order to save a variety of programs for the poor and needy.

The proposed swap was so controversial that administration sources suggested Gov. William Donald Schaefer might reject some or all of it, and many lawmakers made clear that even if he went along, they might vote against the legislation required to implement it.

With budget problems commanding their attention, legislators meanwhile made no progress on the topic for which the General Assembly was originally called into special session Sept. 25: congressional redistricting.

Instead, lawmakers held one closed-door meeting after another to discuss their budget options until much of the political pressure exploded during an emotional debate on the Senate floor in which more than half the 47 members spoke.

Cutting aid to education "will leave a tattoo so permanent on our political lives that no one will ever forget what we did here," Sen. John A. Pica Jr., D-Baltimore, warned.

The Senate was in particular disarray, with senators unable to agree on whether the budget problems could be resolved with deep cuts to existing programs or only by raising taxes, or some combination of both.

Sen. Howard A. Denis, R-Montgomery, urged members to "send out for pizza, break out the cots" and remain in session until the Senate could devise its own plan to deal with a budget crisis this fiscal year and next that could exceed $1.2 billion.

Several senators chafed at being cornered into going along with a plan developed by the House. That plan would restore $82.8 million in programs eliminated as part of the governor's $450 million deficit-reduction plan.

Among the programs that would be saved: $60 million of the approximately $90 million cut by eliminating General Public Assistance for 24,000 jobless, disabled adults; $5 million for education programs for state prison inmates; $9.3 million for drug and alcohol treatment; and smaller amounts to restore other programs for the blind, the disabled, rape victims, juvenile delinquents and the infirm.

State police and medevac personnel who stand to lose their jobs under the governor's plan would find them restored, but only if the legislature and governor could agree on cutting an equivalent amount of money elsewhere in the state police budget.

But to find the money to restore most of those programs, the House and Senate decided to offer Mr. Schaefer the option of cutting a portion of the budget he now is prohibited by state law from touching: the $2.1 billion the state sends back to Baltimore and the 23 counties for schools, highways, and Social Security and pension benefits for teachers.

"It's a Hobson's choice," said Senate Budget and Taxation Committee Chairman Laurence Levitan, D-Montgomery, meaning it was a choice between taking what is offered or nothing at all.

"It's more like 'Sophie's Choice' if you ask me," said Senator Pica, referring to the novel about a mother forced to make a life-and-death choice between her two children.

Baltimore lawmakers were incensed by the plan, saying the city cannot afford the $17.5 million in cuts included in the governor's original plan, much less $5 million more. Even though the House plan calls for the city and the four poorest counties (Somerset, Wicomico, Allegany and Garrett) to suffer only 1 percent cuts in local aid compared with 2.5 percent for all other jurisdictions, city lawmakers said there was no way the city could cope.

The legislative plan also calls for five to seven unpaid holidays for most state workers -- the sort of proposal Mr. Schaefer has rejected in the past as a short-term solution. A number of legislators said the only answer was to raise taxes, but leaders in both houses repeatedly said they were convinced they could not muster the required majorities needed to pass a tax bill now.

Even Governor Schaefer said: "Wherever I go, I don't get the feeling people want taxes. All they say is to downsize state government."

But he predicted that by January -- when he has to submit a fiscal 1993 budget that will have already been drastically cut to eliminate a deficit now projected at between $600 million and $800 million -- citizens who were not hurt by this current round of cuts will surely begin to feel the pain.

House and Senate leaders are to deliver their proposal to Mr. Schaefer this afternoon and reconvene in session tomorrow to consider legislation needed to implement the local aid reductions.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.