Doomsday in the State House?

January 31, 1992

The choices Gov. William Donald Schaefer laid before the General Assembly yesterday are hardly appetizing: pass a stripped-down, bare-bones budget that slashes more than $500 million from state programs for the coming fiscal year and raises taxes a comparable amount. Or wipe out more than double that amount in state spending -- a move that would end most state-financed activities in natural resources, agriculture, housing, economic development and environment agencies.

No wonder the governor referred to this as the moment "we've all dreaded for two years" and why his second option was labeled the "doomsday budget." If enacted by the General Assembly, this Draconian spending plan not only would rip apart the fabric of state government, it would also devastate local governments.

Under this scenario, local aid would be cut nearly a quarter-billion dollars: Baltimore City would lose another $33 million in state assistance; Baltimore County, another $33 million; Anne Arundel, $22 million; Howard, $10 million; Harford, $7.7 million; and Carroll, $6.4 million. The hit would be even worse in the Washington suburbs: Montgomery County would lose $45 million and Prince George's $38 million.

Legislators cannot sanction such wholesale reductions. The quality of life in Maryland's communities, especially its schools, would be irreparably harmed. We cannot simply abandon our commitment to a cleaner Chesapeake Bay or a cleaner environment. We cannot do without economic development or walk away from our farmers or our parks and recreation areas. Nor can we slam the door on the impoverished and the truly needy.

The "doomsday budget" is unacceptable, and Governor Schaefer knows it. But he presented it anyway, to give legislators a sense of what lies ahead if a middle ground on Maryland's fiscal crisis isn't found. The sensible route is for legislators to adopt the governor's more pragmatic budget formula that embraces both responsible spending cuts and a limited package of added taxes.

Even this approach would leave Maryland with a threadbare spending program that maintains the core services of government (health, prisons and police, welfare, education) but does little else. Virtually all other state agencies would see their already reduced budgets cut even further. Some programs would end, layoffs would follow. And local aid still would be lowered.

So far, state legislators have avoided making the tough decisions on raising taxes or cutting favored social programs. The day of reckoning is approaching, though. Mr. Schaefer has given them sound guidance for steering state and local governments through this prolonged and deep recession. Now it is up to legislators to display the same kind of pragmatisim in approving a budget that responds to the economic realities of the 1990s.

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