Why not a summit?

December 13, 1991

Governor Schaefer and state lawmakers find themselves facing a series of Hobson's choices. Though most were elected, or re-elected, on what they perceived to be a mandate to keep the lid on taxes, they now confront the harsh fiscal fact that the recession, coupled with an anemic federal response to state needs, continues to dig Maryland deeper into a fiscal hole.

The latest shortfall -- an astounding $225 million -- comes on top of five previous shortfalls that far from merely trimming the fat, have cut the very muscle of government -- not merely on the state level, but more perceptibly in the counties and in Baltimore city, which have sustained drastic reductions in state aid.

Governor Schaefer's latest plan -- to pass two-thirds of the new shortfall off on the locals -- hardly seems a solution, though clearly his options are limited. It would virtually cripple Baltimore city, and most counties would be forced either to cut vital services or increase property taxes -- perhaps the most regressive of the alternatives facing lawmakers.

While members of the General Assembly are, by law, involved in finding a solution, they are also, understandably, confused. Last November's mandate no longer has any relevance. And in its place is a void. Schaefer's decision to deliver a prime-time budget message Tuesday is an important step in forging new fiscal insights. But it is a first step. Schaefer needs to call an economic summit as well -- of county leaders, Baltimore's mayor, state House and Senate leadership and Maryland's congressional delegation -- to hammer out an equitable approach to this problem. The solution may well come in the form of state tax restructuring or a tax increase, slashing state programs, sharing revenues, pushing for federal reform or some combination. Whatever occurs, Maryland needs a broad consensus to move forward.

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