Hard fiscal choices

November 01, 1991

The debate in Annapolis has degenerated from desperation to absurdity. Faced with news that the state confronts another $150 million budget deficit this year, politicians are considering firing 2,000 more government workers, reducing salaries, giving employees time off off without pay and making even deeper cuts in the money that goes to already teetering local governments.

Sure there are whispers among members of the General Assembly about adding an extra 1 percent to the sales tax, or maybe tacking a couple of pennies onto the gas tax. But more powerful is the political pressure to do nothing but cut. And then cut some more. That, incumbents say, is the mandate voters handed them last November. Though there is room for debate over what, precisely, voters wanted when they threw out a slew of incumbents last fall, this much is clear: The mandate was issued before the bottom fell out of the state's economy.

Certainly, there was some fat in the bureaucracies of state and local government. But Maryland officials have had to slash $1 billion from the budget since last fall, and the impact of the last round of cuts, to plug a $450 million hole, has not yet been felt. In every jurisdiction, state aid is being slashed; police and fire budgets will be hit as well as money for education, drug treatment, road repair. Many government employees have been forced to take substantial pay cuts; thousands could be laid off statewide before this is over. And that merely feeds the budget problem: More than 320,000 Marylanders are now receiving food stamps, for example, and a burgeoning number qualify for medical assistance and welfare, all of which means even more red ink.

Of course Maryland can sustain another round of cuts in the name of less government. But what will we have if it does? Putting off road and bridge repair or cutting money for schools, social services, police and fire protection, health and drug-treatment programs -- to name just a few -- will not make needs go away. It will only reduce the level of service and cost taxpayers more down the road when existing problems, exacerbated by neglect, can no longer be ignored.

"No new taxes" has become the national mantra. But if this is the course Marylanders choose, we must all be prepared to reduce our expectations of what government can do, and to adjust to an environment in which the programs and services on which many people now rely will be either replaced by a thousand points of lights or simply burn out. With 8 cents of every tax dime committed to mandated programs, and with the state facing another $700 million deficit for the fiscal year that starts in July, the choice is critical, and it must be made soon.

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