Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller says state legislators are so distressed over the thought of a special General Assembly session to cure Maryland's latest deficit woes that "if we even considered the prospect, we'd have a revolt." That's the kind of no-leadership attitude which has placed lawmakers in such low public regard these days.
Less than four weeks into the new fiscal year, Maryland is already somewhere between $170 million and $250 million in the red. Some experts are predicting a shortfall of $400 million by next spring. And yet, neither the legislature nor Gov. William Donald Schaefer views this as a crisis.
But it is a crisis. The longer it takes Senate President Miller and House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell to recognize the severity of Maryland's budget shortfall, the tougher it will be to bring the books back into balance. We've already been through that exercise once before, and delaying a response proved painful for everyone.
Governor Schaefer, at least, has taken the lead in cutting $56 million from state agencies and local aid to erase IOUs from last fiscal year's budget. But what about the current crisis? Mr. Schaefer blames the counties and Baltimore City for not being frugal enough. He warns of bigger cuts in local aid. He has not, though, committed state government to downsizing its operations to shave costs.
Wiping out such a massive deficit requires a cooperative attack the governor and legislators. It is crucial that a plan be drawn up and implemented quickly. State and local officials still have 11 months in this fiscal year to make budget reductions; but if State House leaders wait till March to act, finding $400 million to cut in just three months could prove devastating.
We urge state leaders to plan a special one-day session of the General Assembly in the next month or so. A variety of options should be pursued: adopting the common-sense proposals of the Butta commission on efficiency; outsourcing in-house operations, such as custodial services and building security; selling off some of the state's buildings and facilities to the private sector; consolidating overlapping state programs; shrinking the size of some agencies, and looking once again at new taxes, especially more user fees.
Local officials realize that state aid is bound to be cut again, too. They are pleading, though, for early action. For instance, they'd like to make any required cuts in local school budgets before kids return to classes. Surely, state leaders can see the logic in that request.
Maryland should not have to go through a long-running budget )) trauma for the third year in a row. Let's get this crisis behind us once and for all. Both the governor and the legislature should adopt Mr. Schaefer's motto, and "Do It NOW!"