Avoiding Hard Decisions

November 30, 1991

When are state legislators going to start making the hard fiscal decisions they've been avoiding most of this year? When will they stop blaming the state's fiscal woes on Washington and the economy and come to grips with the uncomfortable reality that it will take further budget cuts and tax increases to pull Maryland out of its deep hole?

Look at the Medicaid situation. As the recession drags middle-class families into welfare, the Medicaid rolls balloon far beyond projections. Instead of the expected 370,000 people on medical assistance, there are 423,000. The added cost to the state in this fiscal year is $200 million.

But what is the Legislative Budget Workgroup doing about this? Sniping at one another. Bemoaning the fact that Medicaid is "a runaway program." Blaming Congress for irresponsibly enlarging the scope of the Medicaid benefits without regard to the states' abilities to pay the added costs.

It's time the work group faced facts:

* State legislators can't change federal law.

* Medicaid costs will continue to grow if the recession persists -- and state legislators are obligated by law to pay the bill.

* The state of Maryland is rapidly running out of ways to further cut spending in other areas of government without eliminating entire agencies.

* Higher taxes are no longer unthinkable.

At the moment, Maryland's 18-month budget gap is approaching $1.1 billion, and it could continue to widen. Legislators have to find the courage to take unpopular steps to bridge that gap. Otherwise, the General Assembly can kiss the state's triple-A bond rating goodbye and will have to explain to constituents why popular social programs are being wiped out of existence.

If the legislative work group wants to do something about the "runaway" Medicaid program, it should invite Maryland's two senators and eight congressmen to a special meeting in Annapolis to learn about the ramifications of their congressional votes on the state's financial condition. These federal legislators ought to be held accountable for their actions.

But the biggest decisions the work group should make deal with sensible downsizing of government and sensible levels of taxation. Steps have to be taken in both directions. The one thing legislators should not do is procrastinate. Without prompt action to cut spending and increase revenues, Maryland's deficit will mount -- and the solutions will prove far more painful.

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