Maryland lawmakers this week asked Gov. William Donald Schaefer to postpone making further cuts in the state budget until they have time to come up with a remedy for the state's revenue problems.
If Schaefer agrees to set aside the budget ax, at least temporarily, it could mean a holiday reprieve for many state employees and programs already suffering the effects of previous cuts and a stagnant economy.
"We don't want any budget action taken until we have time to come up with a plan," said Del. Charles J. Ryan, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee.
Ryan, D-Prince George's, said the legislature hopes to have a plan to solve current budget problems by January, then devote the rest of the three-month legislative session to next year's budget.
He said further cuts by the governor could derail attempts to solve the problems altogether.
"Any action that would be taken now would bust our plans apart," Ryan said.
Ryan said General Assembly leaders, who will ask taxpayers for their opinions on the budget during five public hearings in December, want to look at the two budgets as a single problem to be solved during the legislative session that begins in January.
The request comes just three weeks before the state Board of Revenue Estimates is scheduled to release official revenue projections that will give a clearer picture of Maryland's fiscal condition. Under normal circumstances, the governor would use the estimates to determine how much must be cut to balance the state's $11.5 billion budget.
Until the board's numbers are released, the governor and lawmakers are speculating that the state faces at least another $150 million deficit. It is widely believed in Annapolis that the governor, armed with the board's predictions, will embark upon a second round of budget cuts in December to balance the general fund budget for the current fiscal year.
Schaefer has said the next round of cuts will be painful and could affect state services spared during an earlier round of cuts after protesters persuaded lawmakers to reduce aid to local governments instead.
During a bitter special legislative session in September, Schaefer and lawmakers agreed to cut the budget by $376 million. The controversial action resulted in reduced financial aid to education, local jurisdictions and the loss of about 1,500 state jobs.
Since then, Schaefer has agreed to let a group of 26 members of the House of Delegates and state Senate work with his fiscal staff to create a proposed budget for fiscal 1993, which begins July 1.
Besides the $150 million deficit facing Schaefer in the current budget, budget officials believe state revenues will fall another $700 million short in the next budget.
Frederick W. Puddester, Schaefer's deputy budget secretary, said yesterday that the governor is undecided about the legislators' request.
"Right now we're waiting for the BRE to give us a target to shoot vTC at," Puddester said. "That's when we'll decide."
The revenue estimates board, which consists of state Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein, budget Secretary Charles L. Benton Jr., and Treasurer Lucille Maurer, is scheduled to meet Dec. 4 in Annapolis.
Schaefer spokeswoman Page Boinest said Schaefer wants to cooperate with the legislature on fiscal issues but cannot guarantee that he will not make budget cuts before the 1993 legislative session begins.
"He has a responsibility to balance the budget," Boinest said, "and he knows that if savings are to be realized, he has to take action soon."
If the governor wants to move quickly to make the cuts, he may need a favor from the General Assembly -- its agreement to come to a special session and vote for cuts in programs whose expenditures are mandated by law.
Regardless of Schaefer's response, the legislature is not disposed to return again to Annapolis before the regular session, according to Ryan.
And the legislative plan to hold meetings throughout the state to help find solutions to the state's budget problems leaves little time left for a December session of the General Assembly.
The public hearings will begin Dec. 2 in Annapolis. Subsequent hearings will be held Dec. 3 at Montgomery Community College in Rockville, Dec. 4 at Poly-Western Auditorium in Baltimore, Dec. 5 at Chesapeake Community College in Queen Anne's County and Dec. 6 at Hagerstown Junior College. The meetings will begin at 6:30 p.m.