Budget Deadlock in Annapolis

March 09, 1992

One month before the end of the General Assembly session, and only three weeks before the constitutional deadline for passage of a budget, House and Senate leaders are so far apart that a budget agreement may not be possible. This poses grave threats for the state's citizens.

House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell is determined to slash deeply into government spending -- so deeply that it could devastate many local-aid programs and force a sharp curtailment of state programs for the poor and needy. Senate budget leader Laurence Levitan is equally determined to take a more balanced approach. He wants to cut state expenses by $750 million but also raise taxes and fees by $440 million so as not to decimate truly worthwhile programs on the state and local levels.

But the situation is complicated by the adamant opposition of House Republicans to any additional taxes. Their proposal already has been denounced by Mr. Levitan as "absolutely irresponsible." Among other things, the plan would leave the state with a $270 million deficit in this fiscal year and cut back drastically on school-aid money due the city and counties in July.

Yet the Republican "no taxes" approach has gained legislative adherents, despite indications public attitudes toward taxes are rapidly changing: a Mason-Dixon poll last Labor Day showed 70 percent opposition to tax hikes; another poll by the same firm in January indicated tax opposition had dropped to 45 percent. And The Sun Poll two weeks ago showed a further decline to 18 percent. Marylanders are beginning to realize that holding the line on taxes comes with a terrible social price.

That's the message of an ecumenical group of religious leaders who next week plan to plead with House leaders to recognize the human damage that could come from their hard-nosed determination to cut into the bone of programs that aid the poor. It is also the message of county executives -- including fiscally conservative Republicans -- who can't seem to convince delegates that real harm will be done to "people programs" back home unless money is found to assist local governments.

So far, few House leaders are heeding these pleas. The result is a budding constitutional crisis that could lead to no budget solution before the April 6 adjournment. Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Levitan have an obligation to the state's citizens to avoid such an outcome. It is time to hammer out a compromise that holds the poor and the counties harmless while reducing the scope of government spending. If this also requires additional taxation, so be it. As Mr. Levitan noted, without some new taxes, "The state goes down the tubes, the agencies are devastated, we lose our Triple-A bond rating." He's not willing to let that happen. And neither should other responsible Marylanders.

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