Governor tells what went wrong Topic of taxes avoided in TV talk on budget

December 18, 1991|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun Lynda Robinson of The Sun's metropolitan staff contributed to this article.

ANNAPOLIS -- Gov. William Donald Schaefer went on statewide television last night to explain the origins of Maryland's budget crisis, told viewers "we cannot turn our backs" on the disadvantaged, but then offered no new solutions.

He never mentioned the word "taxes."

Instead, the slightly nervous 70-year-old governor retraced the spending decisions and economic pressures that transformed Maryland's budget from a robust $402 million surplus three years ago to a combined deficit this year and next that easily exceeds $1 billion.

He told viewers on nine TV stations and other listeners on radio how most of the surplus was spent on one-time-only capital construction and maintenance of government facilities; how the economy had shifted from higher-paying manufacturing to lower-paying service jobs; and how the recession had driven tens of thousands of Marylanders onto the Medicaid and welfare rolls. And he talked about the high cost to government of taking care of drug abusers, AIDS patients and the severely disabled.

He noted that when families get in financial trouble, they simply cut back, but said: "We can't close prisons. We can't close the schools. We can't turn our backs on welfare cases."

When it came time to explain what he intends to do about this problem, however, Mr. Schaefer reiterated his plan to speed up some already approved state construction projects and urged people to spend more money this Christmas season to help boost sales tax collections.

"We need a good holiday season; [we need] people who have some money to go out and spend," he said.

He said his administration was developing reforms to keep welfare, health and education costs down, and urged more people to volunteer their services. But he complained that too many citizens now suffer from "compassion burnout" and, pointing to one of eight charts he used as props, noted: "We are our brother's keepers."

State Sen. Laurence Levitan, D-Montgomery, chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, said he thought Mr. Schaefer should have offered specific proposals to deal with the problem.

"It seems to me he is the governor. If you're going to present a list of problems, you ought to try to present some solutions. And I really believe it is going to take some leadership to try to solve the problem."

He said rank-and-file legislators were looking for leadership and described Mr. Schaefer as "gun-shy," saying he was "afraid to take the first step."

"Everyone is ignoring the problem, but to think you're going to do it just with budget cuts is a mistake," Senator Levitan added.

His House counterpart, Appropriations Committee Chairman Charles J. Ryan Jr., D-Prince George's, said it was "a good idea going to the people" and applauded Mr. Schaefer's "easy, low-key approach and friendly tone."

Mr. Schaefer began by telling his audience that he went on TV because the state has some problems and "I thought you ought to get it from me." Sitting on the edge of a table in the reception room outside his second-floor State House office, Mr. Schaefer tried to look relaxed and to talk in a conversational style, although he once inadvertently referred to "1989" as "1949."

But Mr. Ryan disagreed with those who said the governor should have offered a specific plan.

"In January, the governor has his State-of-the-State address. This sort of sets the table for him to come forward in January and say, 'We've looked at all these things. Here's what we're suggesting,' " Mr. Ryan said.

Sen. John A. Pica Jr., D-Baltimore, chairman of the city's Senate delegation, said he believes Mr. Schaefer wants to raise taxes to solve help solve the problem but just refrained from saying so.

"The governor just explained the magnitude of the problem," he said.

Mr. Schaefer's aides said he decided to go on television only after legislators told him during a recent briefing on the latest deficit figures that the public did not believe or understand the severity of the crisis.

"I'm anxious to hear what the reaction is from the public. There are a lot of people who don't realize how serious the situation is," said Delegate Tyras S. Athey, D-Anne Arundel, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. But Mr. Athey said he worried that Mr. Schaefer "may have been talking over the heads of a lot of folks."

In recent weeks, Mr. Schaefer's advisers have been working with an ad hoc group of 26 delegates and senators to come up with a comprehensive solution to the budget crisis.

The group was supposed to have held its fourth meeting yesterday, but it was canceled because there was still no consensus about what must be done, said House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent.

Mr. Mitchell has opposed raising taxes, even under pressure from others in the 26-member group who have begun to move in that direction.

But Mr. Levitan accused Mr. Mitchell of canceling the meeting because he feared the group was moving toward a conceptual decision that some form of tax increase was unavoidable. "We've got to move, and he stopped the movement," Mr. Levitan said.

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