Shifting the Pain in Annapolis

October 11, 1991

What Gov. William Donald Schaefer has done in his latest budget proposal is to shift the burden of Maryland's $450 million financial crisis to local subdivisions. This was implicit in legislative alternatives to the governor's original plan to slice deeply into social service programs, cut police jobs, ground some medevac helicopters and idle more than 1,700 state workers. Nothing really is solved.

What it proves is that there can be no response to the state's budget shortfall that is not without pain. State and local services are intertwined. Under the new formula, the counties and Baltimore City would lose $68 million in state pension contributions and tax revenues. The Schaefer touch, however, is reflected in a worthy attempt to impose greater cuts on wealthy suburban counties so as to ease burdens on Baltimore City and rural counties.

The pending plan avoids the imposition of new taxes for the simple reason that the votes are not there in Annapolis to adopt them. But come January, the legislature will at least have to rethink the state's revenue picture and determine whether a deficit as large as $800 million can be covered strictly by downsizing government. The result should be a tax component in a package that also reduces government expenditures.

While interest groups that screamed loudest against the governor's original, attention-getting approach get some relief in the new alternative, it still calls for firing 1,500 government workers, snipping welfare benefits and curbing overtime pay for state troopers. Predictably, some local politicos in wealthier counties are not happy to be targeted. Montgomery Council President Isiah Leggett says the latest proposal "does nothing for the problem" and may force his already hard-pressed county to tighten its belt another notch. If this kind of reaction on the local level gets heard on the floor of the General Assembly, there may be a change of anti-tax sentiment in Annapolis. Much depends on whether articulate citizens are more exercised over the prospect of higher taxes or of deteriorating public services and facilities. There is little likelihood the current recession will change soon into a recovery vigorous enough to replenish the revenue flow.

While the latest proposal is clearly more short-term patchwork than a lasting solution, it should mark a point of departure toward serious work in the governor's office and in the legislature to recalibrate Maryland's revenue stream to accommodate recession and structural changes in the workplace. More emphasis is needed on streamlining government and, perhaps, privatization.

Choices must be made whether to put the squeeze on at state or local level, for squeeze there will be. The point, we think, is aptly made in the comments of House Majority Leader D. Bruce Poole, D-Washington. When asked whether the latest plan will garner the necessary votes, he said, "We could potentially lose votes in the counties that are hardest hit. But we're coming to the realization that there isn't a sweetheart deal to be had."

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