Having failed miserably to pass a balanced budget by last Monday's constitutional deadline, the Maryland General Assembly may be hard-pressed to meet a second, equally important deadline: passage of a budget and tax plan before the legal sine die adjournment of the 90-day session next Monday evening. Such a failure could set in motion a "doomsday" scenario leading to huge reductions in state and local services and the dismantling of entire state agencies.
The longer that senators and delegates procrastinate in finding a solution, the more likely it is that the "doomsday" budget of Gov. William Donald Schaefer will actually be implemented. That's because of the potential for a filibuster in the Senate if a tax plan hits the floor in the closing days of the session.
Such a talkathon would trigger an extended session. All legislative work other than the budget must stop at that point -- including tax packages designed to cushion the budget-balancing act. All other bills would die at that stage, including aid programs for the counties and city needed to stave off higher property tax rates and avoid deep cuts in the schools and in social service agencies.
Without a tax component, the only way to balance the budget would be through gargantuan reductions in state programs. The governor's "doomsday" budget, for instance, eliminates all general funds for natural resources, agriculture, economic development, housing and the environment. Programs for the poor would be chopped a quarter-billion dollars. And another $100 million would be taken away from the counties and city.
Are these "scare tactics"? That's what the no-tax crowd in Annapolis maintained earlier in the General Assembly session. They accused the governor of trying to panic legislators into backing his tax plan to avoid invoking the "doomsday" budget. Now, though, "doomsday" is more than a mere threat; it is an imminent possibility.
Yet it is such a distasteful and destructive option that legislators ought to re-double their efforts to find common ground on a tax and spending program quickly. A small glimmer of hope emerged yesterday, when House-Senate conferees agreed on a 20-cent hike in the cigarette tax. It will take long hours at the bargaining table and flexibility on both sides to reach a broader compromise in the next few days that can win House and Senate approval. Responsible lawmakers have little choice. Invoking the "doomsday" scenario could prove calamitous for citizens, young and old, who have come to depend on state and local governments for help.