Any way they looked at it, the menu of budget cuts and tax increases was a sorry bill of fare.
But General Assembly leaders seemed confident yesterday that they could mold a politically poisonous list of options they had produced into a workable plan to eliminate Maryland's projected $1.2 billion 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."
Besides the big cuts, legislative leaders produced a list of "hot button" items -- cuts that wouldn't amount to much in dollars but were designed to placate the traditional budget bashers.
They included reductions in car phones, state automobiles, fancy color printing, and the state's generosity with holidays for employees.
Meanwhile, the legislature's increasingly vocal Republican minority began sniping at the Democratic leadership, 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.
Del. John G. Gary, R-Anne Arundel, called the projected $1.2 billion deficit "the big lie."
Del. Martha S. Klima, R-Balto. Co., also criticized the deficit number.
House Minority Leader Ellen R. Sauerbrey, R-Balto. Co., 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.