Sauerbrey's Litmus Test

July 31, 1994

Del. Ellen R. Sauerbrey's campaign for governor boils down to a single major issue: cut government spending. She has shaped her campaign around her reputation as a rock-solid fiscal conservative. Now she has unveiled a plan to cut $1.3 billion from the state budget and lower taxes.

On paper, it sounds appealing: Cut $600 million by freezing the growth in jobs; cut $435 million by reducing operating expenses; cut $150 million from entitlements; apply zero-based budgeting.

She plans to wipe out the projected $1.1 billion deficit over fours years, pay for raises for workers and for current education commitments, and provide tax relief by raising the personal income-tax exemption. Later, she hopes to cut taxes further.

That's quite a heavy agenda -- especially for a conservative Republican who would be dealing with a Democratic legislature. Much of it would be impractical to achieve.

For instance, how can you cut $150 million from entitlements when these expenses are projected to rise by $325 million over four years? How can you limit increases in public safety to just $73 million over four years when prison expenses rose this past year by $32 million? How do you cut more than $1 billion from state agencies without tearing the heart out of some of them?

Still, Mrs. Sauerbrey deserves credit for raising key points that need to be addressed. Maryland is facing a $1 billion deficit, yet some candidates are promising the sun, the moon and the stars.

Mrs. Sauerbrey has posed a sensible way to start the reevaluation of government. She calls it her "litmus test," and it is a method others should consider. She wants the next governor to sit down and ask three questions about each program:

* Is is a proper function for government?

* Is it cost-effective?

* Is it affordable?

From Mrs. Sauerbrey's hard-nosed conservative vantage point,

most programs would flunk this test. Other candidates see things from a more humane perspective. As Republican gubernatorial candidate William S. Shepard put it, Mrs. Sauerbrey "looks at things from the standpoint of a green eyeshade -- an accountant." He issued his own budget analysis in May, which proposes downsizing more slowly and less painfully. The third Republican in the race, Rep. Helen Bentley, has yet to issue any assessment of how she would cope with the state's budget problems.

There is no more crucial aspect of a governor's job than shaping the state budget. Mrs. Sauerbrey has thrown down the gauntlet for candidates to discuss this issue in detail. Whether you agree or disagree, the Sauerbrey plan will serve a useful purpose for voters if it becomes a point of contention in the coming weeks of the primary campaign.

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