Budget cuts that hurt

September 18, 1992

It sounds so simple: Cut a quarter-billion dollars from state agencies, $150 million from local governments, raise fees, start a new lottery game -- and Round No. 8 of Maryland's budget-balancing drama is history.

Except this time, the cuts will hurt people directly, especially those who are too poor, too frail, too sick or too dangerous to society to be left to their own devices.

Past budget cuts have papered over the deficit by eliminating vacant jobs, delaying purchases, emptying revolving funds and shifting money around. "We've been to this well seven times," Gov. William Donald Schaefer said yesterday. The easy steps have been taken.

So 400 individuals with families and financial obligations will get pink slips. There will be no money for oyster seeding. Seven hundred poor people in the state Medicaid program will lose all benefits. Welfare families will find their grants cut by $18 a month -- to the support level of 1988. Aid for local health departments will be eliminated. The state's weights and measures and egg inspection programs will cease. Gypsy moth and mosquito spraying will be curbed.

That's not all. Most programs for prison inmates will be ended, no new prison guards will be hired. New prisons being built won't open. Aid to colleges will be cut once more. Scholarships for 300 students will end. Arts grants to 140 groups will shrink. Inspections of construction projects will be reduced.

On top of this, local governments must come up with another $150 million in cuts that could reduce money for schools, libraries, community colleges, roads, police and fire departments.

Welcome to the frugal 1990s. Maryland's spending program is growing faster than state revenues. This round of budget cuts tries to narrow the gap, but its success depends on the willingness of legislators to go along.

If lawmakers deadlock, as they did earlier this year, the governor has no choice but to impose far broader cuts in state government that would leave health programs in shambles, prisons undermanned and severely overcrowded and state colleges with big tuition and fee increases. Welfare assistance for 23,000 people would be wiped out, grants for 222,000 other poor people would be slashed to 1988 levels and 2,500 state workers would be fired.

This is, of course, a worst-case scenario. But if legislators don't take the governor seriously, blood will indeed flow in the State House.

Mr. Schaefer has no choice but to make these personally agonizing decisions if the state's spending habits are to be brought into balance with existing revenues.

The difference is that this time, tens of thousands of Marylanders will feel the pain.

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