Bigger cuts, greater pain are forecast Revenue continues to plunge as need for assistance soars MARYLAND SPENDING CUTS

September 06, 1992|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Annapolis Bureau

ANNAPOLIS -- After seven rounds of budget-cutting in th past two years, after thousands of state jobs have been eliminated and more than $1.5 billion dollars in spending have been cut, here's where we are:

Maryland's budget is bigger than ever.

And another $500 million problem looms on the horizon.

Now the governor and state lawmakers are getting ready to cut again, and this time they think it is really going to hurt. This time there are no new taxes to count on, no reserves to tap. This time there is only the option to cut even deeper into some state programs -- and many in government think those programs cannot withstand another swing of the ax.

There's no mystery about the source of the state's ongoing financial crisis. Partly because of the recession, the number of Marylanders seeking welfare and medical assistance has skyrocketed. Because of the same recession, the state's historically steady growth in tax revenues has collapsed.

Since 1990, state spending on Medicaid, welfare, foster care and other public assistance has grown by more than 40 percent. Almost a half-million Marylanders are now on Medicaid. A quarter-million are on welfare.

The state also has been forced to pay more to house the relentless flow of criminals to prison, though critics say it's still not enough. More than 20,000 people now reside in state prisons. A hundred more inmates arrive each month than leave.

To cover these costs, lawmakers increased some of the taxes and fees Marylanders pay, yielding $600 million. Mostly, though, they took the money from other programs -- slashing three times that amount from the rest of state government.

Now, lawmakers are conceding that the $12 billion budget for the fiscal year that began just two months ago was based on economic projections that were far too rosy, and that another half-billion dollars will have to be found.

It is a political certainty that the money will be found by cutting deeper into government. Lawmakers are aware that the majority of Marylanders who don't rely on the state for much haven't really felt the cuts so far and that raising taxes again isn't an option.

But they are also aware that the reductions to date have caused real injury to those who have no one to look to but the state -- injuries that many worry will fester into problems more serious and expensive.

* Overcrowding in the state prison system has reached such crisis proportions that corrections officials for the first time warn they are seriously considering early releases for non-violent criminals who have less than a year left to serve.

* Parole and probation counselors are carrying caseloads that at times exceed 230. Those familiar with shortages predict it is only a matter of time until someone who should have been watched more closely does something many will live to regret.

* Health departments throughout the state have been forced to scale back preventive programs, such as prenatal care for poor women. They cost the state a fraction of the price it is likely to pay to care for their unhealthy babies.

* The push to elevate Maryland's college and university system to world-class status -- and to make College Park "another Stanford" -- has not only stalled, it is in danger of going backward. Fewer classes are being offered, class sizes are bigger, and faculty are leaving for lack of pay or research equipment. Tuition and fees have shot up so fast that many Maryland families are finding a college education financially out of reach.

* Monitors in the state's model program for drunken drivers, hopelessly swamped with paperwork, are now called upon to supervise an average of 370 offenders each. They used to meet with their clients weekly; now they are lucky to see them monthly, increasing the risk that intoxicated drivers will be back behind the wheel again.

* Chronic under-funding has made it difficult for the state Insurance Division to regulate insurers adequately to meet new national standards. Commissioner John A. Donaho says that if the state fails to become accredited before 1994, Maryland-based companies could be barred from selling insurance in other states and might think about moving, threatening the livelihoods of almost 100,000 brokers, agents and insurance company employees here.

* Trims on spending for treatment of alcohol and drug abuse have closed heavily used halfway houses, increasing the likelihood that abusers will fall off the wagon again. Addicts or alcoholics, many of them already homeless, are finding they cannot get into treatment programs because the state will no longer pay for them to enter a hospital detoxification program.

The cost for those who are admitted for treatment, once borne by the state, now has been spread to all other patients through higher hospital rates -- a shift that is threatening the financial stability of those hospitals that have the highest proportion of indigent patients.

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