Budget babble in Annapolis

January 22, 1993

Has the state of Maryland recovered sufficiently from the recession to absorb a 4.3 percent increase in state spending? Officials in the Schaefer administration think so, but legislators had better survey this $12.7 billion budget with a microscope. The last thing this state needs is another miscalculation that creates a huge deficit almost as soon as the budget is approved.

The babble of budget bureaucrats makes it difficult to get a true picture of what's going on. The overall budget is indeed up by 4.3 percent, even though the growth in revenue is projected to rise only 2.3 percent. That appears deeply troubling.

But much of this gap seems to be an accounting quibble related to the $146 million cut in local teacher pension aid approved by the legislature last November. It is an arcane accounting argument, one that legislators and their own analysts will have to resolve to their satisfaction.

Most of state government remains in a budget holding pattern. Even state support for mandated programs -- prisons, welfare, health, juvenile services -- shows signs of leveling off. That's a good indicator the worst of the recessionary woes may be over. What sends this budget into orbit is $185 million earmarked by the governor for education, police and health aid on the local level.

Can the state afford such largess right now? That's the crucial question. Gov. William Donald Schaefer is focusing much of this money on prevention programs that will stem problems before they become costly for government.

But there is also $110 million to increase school aid and $25 million to support police departments. These are indeed worthy programs. Yet lawmakers may have to be less generous with local governments until they are certain an economic recovery ,, has started and the state's revenues are increasing at a much faster rate than at present.

There are other reasons for caution. Governor Schaefer is banking on $100 million from keno -- 50 percent above the predictions of legislative analysts. This is a dangerously addictive gambling expansion, one that is not a reliable source of revenue. Keno should be killed, and lawmakers should adjust the governor's budget accordingly.

We applaud the governor's stress on prevention programs and the restoration of aid to localities. But can we afford it this year? Legislators should take extra care in reviewing Mr. Schaefer's budget. They've been burned so often in recent times that they can't afford to be scorched again.

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