Serious Budget Surgery

September 18, 1992

It pained Gov. William Donald Schaefer to unveil his plans for cutting $450 million from state and local governments yesterday. And no wonder. As many as 2,500 state employees (or as few as 400) could lose their jobs. Hundreds of thousands of ill or poor Marylanders will lose some or all of their state benefits. College tuition will soar.

That's the reality of Maryland's budget picture. The recession has taken the air out of this state's economic balloon and pTC recovery is still not yet on the horizon. Spending has far outstripped the cash flowing into the state treasury. And unlike Washington, where deficits are routinely ignored by Congress and the president, Maryland officials must take their obligations seriously. The state constitution mandates a balanced budget each year.

Yet even the bleak options outlined by the governor may not end the state's budget crisis. Demands for services are so great and pressures on legislators from interest groups are so intense that a true downsizing of the government in Annapolis may not occur. Many of the cuts soon to be implemented by the governor could be restored by the legislature next year or the year after. There is still no consensus on making the kinds of structural changes that are needed to narrow the scope and expense of government to affordable levels.

Governor Schaefer is to be commended for attempting to limit the damage these massive cuts can cause. His deep concern for the individuals who work for government or who depend on government services is obvious. These steps are designed to set priorities and then cut back where it will do the least harm to people.

Mr. Schaefer identified three priority areas where cuts will be modest: programs that serve people who are too sick to lose their safety-net lifelines; prevention programs that end up saving the state money, and education programs that are the state's hope for the future. These he wisely attempted to shield. But other programs were savaged. Only if the legislature agrees to chop aid to the counties and the city by $150 million and agrees to some internal shifts of funds can the worst of these proposals be avoided.

This is the eighth time in two years Governor Schaefer has had to cut back spending. It is also the hardest. The easy steps -- more than $1 billion in cuts -- have been taken. But since lawmakers refuse even to consider another round of tax increases, Mr. Schaefer has no option except to make these painful reductions. Shrinking government services may prove more disquieting than most Marylanders expected.

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