'You Don't Know What You're Doing'

October 20, 1991|By C. FRASER SMITH

Annapolis -- As the General Assembly prepared to rearrange $450 million worth of budget cutting pain ten days ago, a member of the House of Delegates stood with a warning.

An amendment hastily added to the bill had not been sufficiently analyzed, said Delegate Gene Counihan, D-Montgomery.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I submit to you that you don't know what you're doing," he said. "You're giving czar-like authority to a county executive."

The amendment would allow local officials in some counties to reduce spending for education for the first time in Maryland history .

"County executives can wipe out the cafeteria staff with this," Mr. Counihan said, citing just one example of the mischief he said would be permitted. "It's a big mistake."

The assembly went ahead anyway.

The objective of the amendment was to provide flexibility for mayors and county executives whose budgets were being cut by a total of $183 million in the state's fifth round of budget cuts.

Recognizing that local governments have been cutting budgets, too, the assembly agreed to provide authority for local officials to reduce the historically untouchable education budgets along with parks and police and fire fighting. The granting of this power is what worried Mr. Counihan.

His concerns were well-founded.

The state's attorney general, J. Joseph Curran Jr., ruled last week that while county executives are not permitted to reduce the number of classroom teachers or equipment, they can prowl through the rest of the education budgets line-by-line, cutting at will, pushing school boards aside if necessary.

While teaching positions were protected, teacher pay could be cut -- and so could the pay of other municipal employees not in the school department. The sanctity of labor contracts was as vulnerable as Mr. Counihan and a few others had warned.

"I can't think of a time when there's been such a change with so little insight and consideration," Delegate Counihan said after the attorney general's opinion was released last week.

If the assembly had gone further than it intended, who could be surprised? The pursuit of balance in the state budget has been a dizzying, downward spiral driven by steady decline of tax revenue -- and by the realization that solutions are needed as quickly as possible.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer observed last week before signing the $450 million reduction measure that state government spending has been cut by $1 billion over the last year.

The forces arrayed against rational decision-making could peel back years of incremental decision making that shaped Maryland's approaches to education or to the poor.

With virtually no debate, the legislature had vastly enhanced the power of county executives. A portion of education's immunity to political expediency had been stripped away. And there were some who suggested that occurrence was not simply a product of fiscal urgency.

"It's preposterous," said Delegate Leon Billlings, another Montgomery County Democrat. "What we had was an anti-union, Republican county executive flimflamming the the leadership."

To balance the budget as required by law, the rate of spending must be reduced as soon as possible. If taxes are to be increased, the action must occur soon to be of any value in the current fiscal year: A penny added to the 5-cent sales tax raises about $300 million a year, $150 million in a half year and so on.

Some legislators have been fretting for months that the pressure to act decisively could work against the desire to act thoughtfully.

"Act in haste, repent at leisure," said Senator Howard A. Denis, R-Montgomery.

"What you have here is turmoil. What you have is chaos," said Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall, a leading proponent of the right to consider cuts in education budgets along with all of the others that must be cut. Without a bottom line on the cuts that may be continue and without access to education budgets, he said, the "turmoil" will continue.

While some of his county executive colleagues were protesting and pleading for relief from the state aid cuts, Mr. Neall was saying he could absorb them -- if he had the authority to bring all departments of his government into the budget cutting tent. That appeal in the morning led to the amendment Mr. Counihan protested that same afternoon.

Mr. Neall says he was only interested finding a way to solve his county's problem -- and to do it in a way that was fair to the taxpayers as well as to county employees.

Like Governor Schaefer, he said he wonders if people really understand how serious the problem has become.

Anticipating a substantial loss of state aid, he asked the Anne Arundel school department to give him a plan for reduction of another $5 million. That reduction would still mean the education budget had grown.

But the educators offered no plan -- and, instead, asked if they could spend a $1.9 million savings he had managed by convincing the school board to let him seek bids for all the county's insurance in a single package.

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