Rubber Stamp Instead of an Ax

May 29, 1993

Strange and historic days, indeed, in Baltimore County.

Last February, County Executive Roger Hayden announced a major downsizing of government that included the first ever large-scale layoffs of county employees. A $90 million decrease in tax revenues, caused by years of recession, compelled the executive to take those drastic steps.

This past week brought another exceptional action -- or, in this case, inaction -- when the County Council rubber-stamped Mr. Hayden's $1.2 billion budget proposal for fiscal 1994. Not since 34 years ago, in the dawn of the county's charter form of government, has the council passed an executive's budget without touching a penny in it.

Council chairman C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger said slashing Mr. Hayden's "status quo" allocations would have been excessive after previous deep cuts, especially the February downsizing.

Granted, times are tight in the county. But it's hard to believe the council could find nothing to trim from the executive's proposal of a huge general budget that's $10 million larger than last year.

Clearly the council chose to shun its traditional role and not wield its budget ax for reasons that included but went beyond county finances.

One key reason is politics. The council members are up for re-election next year; Mr. Ruppersberger is all but announced as a candidate for county executive. The members are already taking plenty of heat from constituents for service reductions, not all of which originated in the council offices. No doubt the members want to avoid creating more grief for themselves with further cutbacks.

Then there's Annapolis to deal with. The council was warned by county legislators that shrinking the local budget would give the appearance the government is not so hard-up for cash as advertised. Requests for state aid next year would thus get little sympathy from the General Assembly.

Ironically, it was Donald Mason of Dundalk, the lone dissenter in the council's 6-1 passage of the Hayden budget and the member paid the least attention by his colleagues, who offered perhaps the best insight into the vote. Mr. Mason noted that his advanced age allowed him to sound the unpopular call for deeper cuts, while his younger colleagues had to be more careful of their political careers.

Mr. Mason gets criticized a lot, often with good cause. But this time give him credit for pointing out there was more to this unusual rubber-stamping than his council mates would have us think.

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