Among options on the budget, a tax rise lurks GOP criticizes 'the big lie' as Democrats unveil plans

January 16, 1992|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- Democratic General Assembly leaders unveiled a grim array of budget options yesterday -- including a probable tax increase.

But they seemed confident they could mold the unpalatable menu into a politically workable plan to eliminate Maryland's budget deficit.

"Nobody said our job will be easy," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's. "But once state spending is substantially reduced, we'll ask the [House and Senate] to enact revenues -- in other words, taxes. No one likes to say the word."

But the legislature's increasingly vocal Republican minority immediately cried foul, with one GOP lawmaker calling the $1.2 billion deficit figure "the big lie."

Republicans claimed that the overall deficit and budget-cutting numbers used by the Democrats were phony and that a major tax increase still could be avoided.

They vowed to unveil their own budget proposal today, in itself a rarity in a legislature long dominated by Democrats.

More than 40 lawmakers of both parties listened intently for more than two hours yesterday as their chief budget adviser pored over 41 pages of potential budget cuts and tax increases.

It was a pick-your-poison list that rendered most lawmakers momentarily speechless. It covered everything from closing one of Maryland's four mental hospitals to slicing welfare benefits, to eliminating the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board, to leaving new state facilities unstaffed.

The document laid out the consequences of four spending scenarios:

* State spending at normal levels, an option no one seriously suggests given the nose dive in state revenue over the past 18 months.

Offered primarily for comparison, spending as usual would include pay raises for state employees, inflationary increases in agency budgets and full funding for programs mandated by law -- including aid to local governments. Such spending would produce a $1.2 billion deficit.

* Spending at a level $700 million lower than a normal year, partly by reducing or eliminating some mandated spending. Unspecified taxes would be increased to cover most of the remaining deficit. This is the Democrats' most likely option.

* Absorbing the full $1.2 billion deficit projected in a "normal year" budget by sharply reducing agency spending and relaxing mandated spending.

* A plan that Gov. William Donald Schaefer calls the "doomsday budget." It would leave mandated spending untouched and take the entire $1.2 billion from agencies and entitlement programs -- for the poor such as welfare and Medicaid. Some agencies would cease to exist, or would get by on whatever federal funds and fees they could generate.

Republicans disputed the Democrats' numbers.

Del. John G. Gary, R-Anne Arundel, called the projected $1.2 billion deficit "the big lie."

Del. Martha S. Klima, R-Baltimore County, said it was "a bunch of crap."

House Minority Leader Ellen R. Sauerbrey, R-Baltimore County, said lawmakers should have based their work on this year's already-reduced budget, and not on the artificially inflated levels of what might have been.

Democrats anticipated the criticism and generally shrugged it off.

Sen. Laurence Levitan, D-Montgomery, chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, said he hoped to draft legislation within a week to implement the cut-and-tax scenario.

Specific cuts will be left up to the standing budget committees, Democratic leaders said.

Senator Levitan promised a quick hearing and a vote as early as the beginning of February.

To placate Republicans and fiscal conservatives, the Democrats also came armed with a list of other "hot button" cuts. Although they wouldn't save much money, they were designed to be popular with spending critics.

They included elimination of most state-funded car phones, reducing the number of state cars assigned to individual employees and printing documents in one color on plain paper.

Today in Annapolis

10 a.m.: House and Senate convene, State House.

11:30 a.m.: House Republican Caucus offers "alternative budget," Room 311, House Office Building.

1 p.m.: House Constitutional and Administrative Law Committee considers legislation to abolish legislative scholarships, Room 140, House Office Building.

1 p.m.: Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee receives briefing on Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant, Room 200, Senate Office Building.

3 p.m.: Senate Budget and Taxation Committee receives briefing on international trade opportunities, Room 100, Senate Office Building.

There are 82 days remaining in the 1992 General Assembly session.

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