Sauerbrey proposes a way to shrink government

February 01, 1994|By Robert Timberg | Robert Timberg,Sun Staff Writer

Del. Ellen R. Sauerbrey, a Republican gubernatorial candidate, called yesterday for a constitutional amendment tying increases in state government spending to growth in personal income.

"This is an important first step in cutting the size and cost of TC government," said Mrs. Sauerbrey, the House minority leader. "The amendment will keep state government from growing faster than citizens' ability to pay for it."

At an Annapolis news conference, she also warned that a "major" tax increase will be required in the next few years unless steps are taken immediately to rein in government spending.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer, through a spokeswoman, and a key leader of the Democratic-controlled legislature greeted Mrs. Sauerbrey's initiative coolly.

Page W. Boinest, the governor's press secretary, described the proposal as "election-year talk" that could deprive the chief executive of the "prudent flexibility" a governor needs when putting together the state budget. "The governor is not entertaining any change like that and certainly wouldn't support it," she said.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's, said he was opposed because the proposal is neither needed nor advisable.

As a proposed constitutional amendment, the measure would need to win the support of three-fifths of each house of the General Assembly, then be approved by a majority of voters in the November election.

The Sauerbrey measure would require the governor to submit to the legislature a budget in which new spending does not exceed 90 percent of the percentage increase in Marylanders' personal income. She would compute the permissible increase by averaging the percentage growth in income over the most recent three years for which data were available.

If the governor or legislators believed the 90 percent cap on spending should be raised, they would have to make their case to the voters, Mrs. Sauerbrey said.

Her proposed constitutional change is still being drafted.

Since 1982, the state has been operating under a law by which a Spending Affordability Committee -- made up of senators, delegates and private citizens -- recommends how much the operating budget should grow in the coming fiscal year. That recommendation is not binding on the governor, who prepares the budget and submits it to the General Assembly, or on the legislature, which must approve the budget.

Since the system has been in operation, however, the legislature has only once exceeded the affordability panel's recommendation, Mr. Miller said.

That was in 1984, when Gov. Harry Hughes persuaded legislators to exceed the recommendation to meet the financial needs of public schools and community colleges. That one occasion, Mr. Miller said, followed a year in which the legislature had approved a budget $200 million below the affordability committee's recommendation.

"Ellen's idea is basically a day late and a dollar short," Mr. Miller said.

Mrs. Sauerbrey agreed that the system worked "fairly well" under Mr. Hughes. But she charged that Mr. Schaefer has "thumbed his nose" at the affordability concept and has increasingly ignored the panel's nonbinding recommendations.

The governor's fiscal 1995 budget calls for spending increases of about 6 percent -- about $156 million more than the 5 percent recommended in December by the affordability committee, Mrs. Sauerbrey said.

The legislature can cut the governor's budget, she noted, but that requires an "extraordinary effort" comparable to taking toys away from children after they've been put under the Christmas tree.

Mrs. Sauerbrey pledged to abide by such a spending restraint if elected governor, whether or not the General Assembly went along with it.

"I will not submit a budget that exceeds 90 percent of the growth of personal income," she said.

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