Painful Budget Cuts

October 15, 1991

By the end of this week, when Gov. William Donald Schaefer is scheduled to sign off on $450 million in budget cuts, Maryland will, for the moment, return to its balanced-budget status required under the state constitution. But the pain imposed by state legislators and the governor will shock many Marylanders. This is the price of reconciling shrinking revenue with the growing expenses of government programs in a state where politicians adamantly refuse to raise taxes.

Local leaders complain that the decision by Mr. Schaefer and General Assembly leaders to cut another $68 million in aid to the city and counties will force layoffs, library closings, cuts in school programs and reduced services. This brings the total reduction in state aid to $180 million.

Hardest hit by these cuts are poor jurisdictions, which have precious few resources of their own. Baltimore City, in particular, faces mass firings, the shutdown of more than a dozen library branches and possibly the elimination of pre-school programs for the city's poor.

Yet the loudest squeals are coming from the richest counties. No doubt, some layoffs and program reductions will be required, but the impact won't be catastrophic. Montgomery County, for instance, has a $42 million reserve fund. Baltimore County has an $18 million surplus. Anne Arundel County wisely imposed a $10 million cost-containment program, which offsets more than half the cuts it sustained in state aid. Harford County started pinching pennies early this year and accumulated a $9.8 million surplus, which nicely covers its losses.

Despite considerable anguish in the counties, state agencies still must take the brunt of the budget cuts. Though State Police troopers now have been spared and medevac helicopter bases retained, 1,500 state workers -- mainly in the health-care field -- will be fired. The Public Defenders' office will be severely hampered. The state's poorest families and individuals will receive smaller grants on which to survive. No one will have it easy.

Unhappily, this isn't the end of the bad news. Another round of budget cuts could come as early as December. And with the recession showing no sign of easing in Maryland, the fiscal gap that Mr. Schaefer must close in January could top $800 million.

Additional massive reductions cannot come exclusively through cuts in government services. Yet state legislators refuse even to discuss raising taxes; local officials are just as stubborn about holding down property tax rates. So the painful process of dismantling government services to the state's needy and not-so-needy will continue. Maryland's highly touted quality of life may never be the same.

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