Unless state political leaders take care, Maryland's financial woes will get out of hand and a bad case of the fiscal flu could turn to pneumonia. A few preventive measures might ward off major medical problems later. But that will require foresight and leadership in the State House.
ce again, the governor and legislative leaders don't seem on the same wave length. No one is taking the problem seriously. Certainly not General Assembly leaders, who don't want to face the dilemma. They'd just as soon ignore it. Meanwhile, Gov. William Donald Schaefer has taken a half-step to balance last year's books while adopting a wait-and-see approach for the current year.
The governor this week cut $56 million in aid to local governments and state agencies so the last fiscal year, which ended July 1, finishes in the black. Yet that leaves a gap of as much as $250 million for the current year. This is the fiscal black hole no one wants to discuss.
That same kind of head-in-the-sand approach got the state in trouble early this year, when leaders procrastinated so long in seeking a solution that they had to raise taxes nearly half-a-billion dollars to make ends meet. Even then, the books were never truly balanced.
Are we about to repeat that mistake? Governor Schaefer and state legislative leaders should be mapping detailed plans now for a special legislative session. The sooner they confront this $250 million shortfall, the easier it will be to alleviate it.
They should agree on an approach. It ought to include adoption of the Butta commission recommendations on efficiency in government, including making the Department of Natural Resources fully self-sustaining, privatizing two chronic care hospitals and letting private companies handle security and custodial duties at state facilities.
Leaders should also come up with a plan to downsize existing state programs and consolidate agency activities where there is overlap. More reductions in local aid may also be necessary; state spending for non-essentials will have to be frozen, the $50 million "rainy day" fund will have to be emptied, and the touchy question of "revenue enhancements" will have to be revisited.
We've learned the hard way that too-heavy reliance on a rapid economic recovery is not the way to get the state out of its budgetary sinkhole. It requires early action so the counties and city have time to adjust to reduced aid packages. It requires early action to squeeze the most money out of cutbacks in state programs. And it requires cooperative efforts from the governor and legislature.
A special session early this fall could be just the prescription to cure the state of its fiscal flu. Unless, of course, the governor and lawmakers want to sit by the patient's bedside till January wishing that things improve. We've tried that once before. The patient nearly died.