Balancing the State Budget: Read My Lips

BARRY RASCOVAR

December 15, 1991|By BARRY RASCOVAR | BARRY RASCOVAR,Barry Rascovar is deputy editor of the editorial pages of The Sun.

This is no longer the season to be jolly. The usual holiday spirit has bypassed Maryland. Too many layoffs. Too many budget cuts. Too many distressed workers worried about an uncertain future.

Instead of holiday cheer, this December seems a more fitting time for holiday jeers. Ebenezer Scrooge would feel right at home.

Maryland's top policy-makers won't be making anyone happy. They've either got to raise taxes or decimate state and local governments.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer, having already cut the state budget by nearly $1.2 billion in the last 15 months, now must do it again. He's not a cheery camper, either.

Yet key legislators won't hear of higher taxes. They'd rather say, "bah, humbug!" than raise the dough to keep programs afloat. Their answer: Cut the "fat."

OK, let's do that. Let's get tough and take a dispassionate view of this budget downsizing -- and let's chop away enough to bring spending in line with plunging revenues, with plenty of cushion. After all, it could be a long recession.

We won't worry about the price that might have to be paid in terms of people thrown out of work, services for the poor and the middle class terminated or government agencies that close up shop. And we certainly won't concern ourselves with pleas from vested interests.

Our first order of business is reducing that bloated money-grabber, education.

* Lower school aid to 1990 levels (savings: $370 million). This will mean salary cuts for teachers, but that's better than having no salary at all.

* Cut aid to community colleges 50 percent (savings: $50 million) and let them raise tuition to make up the difference.

* Cut aid to private colleges by 80 percent ($20 million); public colleges should receive first priority.

* Reduce public higher education to 1990 levels ($150 million) and ignore the furor as salaries and programs are slashed. Let them raise tuition to the rafters if they want.

* Cap the state's payment of pension and Social Security benefits for local teachers ($40 million). Let the counties pay this expense.

Also, return to 1990 funding levels the non-mandated programs in the health ($110 million) and public safety ($125 million) departments. If civil libertarians or health-care groups complain, let 'em sue!

Eliminate tax-credit programs ($50 million). So what if the elderly and disabled are hurt? They'll cope.

Get rid of shared tax grants to the counties ($40 million). Annapolis has enough problems of its own.

Other local aid must go. Money for volunteer fire and rescue VTC squads ($5 million) for Baltimore City's foot patrol ($2 million) and Prince George's drug enforcement ($1 million). Localities must share in the overall fiscal pain by absorbing 20 percent of total cuts, as they've done previously ($400 million).

Maryland Public Broadcasting is not essential; cut its grant 50 percent ($5 million).

The Maryland Veterans Commission will have to tighten its belt. Cut it by 50 percent ($1 million). And certainly the state shouldn't be running a nursing home: Cut funds for the Charlotte Hall Veterans Home ($1 million).

Chop the Office on Aging by 50 percent ($6 million). Most of these folks are affluent, anyway!

With this downsizing, Mr. Schaefer won't need many aides. So let's cut his executive department 50 percent cut ($6 million). Also, there's no reason to retain the ceremonial post of secretary of state (savings: $2 million).

While we're at it, let's merge departments: Put natural resources, environment and agriculture together; dissolve the personnel agency and give its duties to the budget department; eliminate the human resources agency and divide its programs between the health and juvenile services departments; reconstitute the old Department of Housing and Economic Development. Conservative savings: $5 million.

By our calculations, this brings our budget reductions to nearly $1.4 billion. But we're not finished by a long shot:

There's no way the legislature gets off the hook. It, too, will have to learn to live with less -- 50 percent less, just like the governor (savings: $20 million).

State workers will have to work 24 four-day weeks once the first and last Fridays of every month are declared unpaid furlough days. This will result in cost reductions worth $140 million. Workers' pay will be hit hard, but once again, they'll still have jobs.

Additionally, we can net $370 million by declaring a 12 percent across-the-board cut for what's left of state government.

And there's an extra $81 million of corporate income tax receipts in the transportation trust fund waiting to be plundered. That would put the state's highwaymen in the red, but who needs road repairs in a downsized government?

Now it's time for a drum roll. The grand total, please.

Two billion dollars.

Not bad for one Sunday's columnizing.

Of course, state and local governments, and the services they deliver, would be in tatters. But we achieved our goal: NO NEW TAXES. I guess this is one cause where the end justifies the means.

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