Shame on the Legislature

April 08, 1992

The Maryland Constitution gives state legislators in Annapolis only one duty that they must perform each and every year: pass a balanced budget. Yet for 90 days, senators and delegates danced around this obligation. They have been fixated on their own political well-being instead of what's best for the citizens of Maryland. What a shameful performance! Voters, take note.

All 188 legislators are to blame for forcing an unprecedent extended session -- at $20,000 a day payable by the taxpayers. Gov. William Donald Schaefer must share in this breakdown of representative government, too. It imperils the state's credit rating, leaves counties and Baltimore in a precarious fiscal bind, destroys the state's construction and economic development program, slams the door on any new transportation activity and impacts every government program that touches the average Marylander's life.

House Majority Leader D. Bruce Poole accurately noted that too many lawmakers "bought into the notion you can get something for nothing," that they could, somehow, avoid raising taxes and also avoid making painful cuts to popular programs. It can't be done. Difficult as it may be, legislators were elected to make precisely these kinds of agonizing choices -- either chop programs or raise taxes. But regardless, the constitution says legislators must approve a balanced budget. For the first time in history, Maryland legislators refused to perform this constitutional obligation.

While Democratic leaders were primarily at fault for creating a government crisis of unprecedented dimensions, Republicans contributed mightily to the deadlock. Their obstructionist tactics the final days of the session smacked of political opportunism, as did their unrealistic rallying cry that a balanced budget is possible without higher taxes or painful spending reductions.

Precious little was accomplished during the Assembly's 90-day session. Lawmakers seemed more concerned with political redistricting than balancing the state's revenue and spending. They did pass a weak growth-control bill, a bill requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets, a dubious off-track betting bill, a weak measure to protect battered spouses, a modest gun-safety measure and a bill giving St. Mary's College more autonomy. All the big issues, though, were shelved. It was largely a wasted three months.

Now, as legislators belatedly try to pass a "doomsday" budget that will hurt all state and local programs and every public school in Maryland, they had better be prepared to accept the consequences of their action -- and to return immediately to undo some of the damage by agreeing on a modest tax package and a construction budget. Above all, they must be open to compromise.

Legislators clearly are in a no-win situation. It's time they put aside their own agendas and for once acted like responsible leaders looking out for the best interests of the state.

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