More Pain for the Counties

December 11, 1991

Round No. 6 of Maryland's emergency budget-cutting drama brought howls of anguish yesterday from county executives and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. And for good reason. Taking another $143 million out of local aid -- after earlier reductions of $230 million -- will force substantial reductions in county and city social programs. More layoffs seem inevitable.

Can this painful step be avoided? Only if state legislators resign themselves to raising taxes. That isn't likely, given the adamant refusal of House leaders -- especially Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell -- even to consider a sizable tax increase. They are stuck in a "no new taxes" time warp.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer, meanwhile, has little choice but to curb once again local aid and chop state expenses. By law, he has to keep Maryland's budget in balance. Still, he has tried to go easy on the city and counties: local aid absorbs 35 percent of the state budget yet the governor has cut county and city funds only 20 percent.

The brunt of the reductions have been felt by state agencies and their workers. Before yesterday's cuts, Mr. Schaefer had lopped $1 billion out of his own government. This time, he asked state agencies to absorb another $25 million in operating reductions; postpone $26 million in construction projects (much of it linked to county parks programs), and furlough state workers for up to five unpaid days, with high-paid workers taking the biggest cuts.

No wonder legislators are complaining about the governor's latest budget solution. They say they won't stand for it. But what alternatives do they propose? It would take 9,000 layoffs to close the current budget gap. No feasible options have been placed on the table.

More gloomy news lies on Maryland's horizon. Based on the pessimistic economic predictions of state economic experts, the governor says there will probably be a seventh round of cuts in the spring. Even worse, Mr. Schaefer is already grappling with a $1 billion spending deficit in next year's budget. There is no way to close that yawning gap without inflicting pain.

It is time for state legislators to face reality. Cutting state and local government spending by another $1.2 billion is bound to hurt essential services. Poorer subdivisions will be especially hard hit, but even the wealthy counties will suffer. A tax package has to be included as part of the overall solution to soften the blow. That is the message county executives and county citizens should be delivering to their local delegates and state senators in the next few weeks. "No new taxes" this time could mean "no more services."

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