Costly legislative overtime

April 08, 1992

There is no justifiable reason for the General Assembly's extended session that began yesterday. At $20,000 per day, this is a waste of tax dollars. It boggles the mind that after 90 days in session -- and more than six months studying in detail tax and spending options -- senators and delegates still can't agree on how to balance the state's $12.5 billion budget. The legislators' disgraceful performance will not be forgotten by voters.

What do legislators think they were elected to do? Party for 90 days on the taxpayer? We expect them, at a minimum, to live up to the only obligation they must perform under the state's constitution -- enact a balanced budget. They couldn't even achieve this minimum standard in 1992.

"It's a mess," said Sen. Clarence Blount, a respected elder. "Not one of us is going to get re-elected" after the public realizes the extent of the Assembly's incompetence. He may be right.

What did the legislature achieve in its three months in the State House? Not much: a motorcycle helmet law; a permanent New Community College of Baltimore; a more autonomous St. Mary's College; an off-track betting bill; a weak land-use bill, and a modest gun-safety bill. The bigger issues, such as tough auto emissions and health insurance, were shelved.

Add to that list of failures the budget deadlock that could ruin the state's well-being. If the legislature now passes the "doomsday" budget with an extra $250 million in cuts, it would mean firing another 1,000 state workers and 2,000 local workers, chopping heavily into local school and police aid, eliminating planning and energy-conservation agencies and affecting virtually every program that assists Marylanders.

If lawmakers also fail to enact a modest tax package and a construction budget, it will mean no school-building or new jails, no land-preservation programs, no save-the-bay program, no new roads or maintenance and no college buildings.

Is that what legislators think their constituents want? Is that what they really think is in the long-term best interests of this state? Sen. Barbara Hoffman blamed the stand-off on lawmakers who felt "they could have the revenues" from new taxes without voting for them. It doesn't work that way.

We expect our elected leaders to make tough decisions. We expect them to take unpopular positions when they feel the welfare of the state is at stake. We expect our legislators to find common ground on such an elemental duty as the budget.

Sooner or later, state lawmakers have to make a choice: higher taxes or deep cuts to programs (like schools) that will dismay constituents. If legislators would start displaying some missing flexibility, this crisis could be surmounted quickly. If not, the costly charade could persist, with devasting results for Maryland, its people -- and each and every legislator.

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