Smooth sailing for state budget

April 08, 1993

It was so amicable legislators had a hard time believing it happened: the General Assembly passed a $12.5 billion budget this week without any drawn-out battles, without any bloody House-Senate slugfests, without any new taxes -- and without missing the constitutional deadline.

What a pleasant change from the bitter brawls of recent years. Legislators were so tired out from the incessant rounds of spending cuts, tax hikes and pummeling from special interests they were happy to approve much of what Gov. William Donald Schaefer submitted. And Mr. Schaefer happily restored some funds cut in previous years, thanks to a slight uptick in economic predictions.

Local governments came away winners. After getting hammered for three years, localities picked up $216 million more, much in education money doled out according to need. This will especially help Baltimore's problem-plagued schools, though there is also $6 million for schools with large numbers of non-English-speaking students and $6 million for counties with high attendance rates.

Combined with last fall's elimination of a state aid program that paid local costs of Social Security payments for teachers and librarians, the net effect is a major redistribution of state funds from wealthy counties to poorer subdivisions. Most of the $147 million in local aid cut last fall favored well-to-do counties; most of the $216 million in new local aid this year will be distributed on the basis of need. That's a significant change.

Legislators also performed admirably in trimming unneeded expenses. Here, Republican lawmakers played a role. Their suggestions to eliminate 1,200 unfilled jobs and to lower the governor's estimates on the size of the welfare and Medicaid rolls were heeded. We hope that cooperative spirit is repeated next year. Savings for taxpayers from legislative cuts: $228 million.

This keeps the state's spending increase for the coming year to about half of what Governor Schefer had requested. More important, the budget now parallels the expected growth in state income for the next year. That, plus a $50 million addition to the reserve fund, should minimize the risk of a sudden drop in the economy.

There is, though, a troubling aspect: the budget depends on $100 million from keno receipts. This game could prove a bust, or a circuit court judge could declare the game illegal. Either possibility would unbalance the budget.

Still, legislators performed admirably in handling the overall budget. It is a modestly progressive document that holds the line on taxes but puts money into prevention programs. And this year, for a change, lawmakers finished their work on time!

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