Will this be the year that the Maryland General Assembly faces up to the need to raise taxes to continue worthwhile social services or the year in which much of state government is dismantled for lack of funds?
These are the stark options facing the 188 state lawmakers as they gather tomorrow for their annual 90-day session. They may, in fact, wind up with the worst of both worlds -- diminished government services and substantially higher taxes. That could be the only feasible way to close a budget gap in excess of $1 billion.
Finding an early solution is imperative because the New York bond-rating houses are following developments in Annapolis carefully. Unless there is quick agreement on a budget-balancing scheme, Maryland's highly coveted triple-A bond rating could be in jeopardy, a development that would add to the deficit and undercut the state's economic development efforts.
So far, there is deep division among legislators over the correct course of action. Even among those who favor higher taxes, no consensus has emerged on how to do it. Nor have legislators figured out how to go about downsizing government. No one wants to take the rap as the executioner.
The governor's commission on efficiency and economy in government has made some sensible suggestions to cut costs. The legislature's own study groups have come up with a number of sound ideas. Still, lawmakers may shy away from taking action once they are bombarded by lobbyists and interest groups. That would make a big tax package even more likely.
Beyond these taxing issues, there are scores of other highly volatile proposals that senators and delegates must confront. Universal health coverage plans are on the table. So is a plan to revamp welfare laws to make recipients accountable for the health and schooling of their children. Another attempt will be made to ban assault weapons. A major auto-emissions bill, sponsored by the administration, has stirred up a fuss, with environmentalists pressing hard for its passage. And a bill to unite the University of Maryland's downtown and Catonsville campuses has drawn only muted criticism, a good sign for those who favor higher-education consolidation in the Baltimore area.
A more personal concern for legislators is the governor's redistricting proposal, which he introduces Wednesday. They have until Feb. 21 to alter these legislative maps and get a majority of the House and Senate to approve the revisions. Otherwise, the governor's maps -- barring court challenges -- will become law, with the biggest impact being felt in the Baltimore region.
State and local governments may never be the same after this 90-day session. The ramifications could be felt quickly by most Marylanders. Sadly, the changes may not be to their liking.