Behind the Sauerbrey Numbers Are Real People

October 16, 1994|By BARRY RASCOVAR

OCEAN CITY — Ocean City. -- Both Ellen Sauerbrey and Parris Glendening, the two candidates for governor, like to talk in visionary terms. But whereas Mr. Glendening's vision of a better Maryland runs to 50 pages in his campaign literature, Ms. Sauerbrey's objectives can be summed up in a few words: Cut taxes, cut the bureaucracy, freeze virtually all state spending at current levels and magical things will start to happen.

It is, indeed, an enticing message that Ms. Sauerbrey has laid out. And yet when she addressed a large business crowd last week at the Maryland Chamber of Commerce's legislative conference -- in the first debate between the Republican and Democratic nominees -- she didn't blow them away.

She should have. After all, these were solid conservatives who have cheered her Reaganomics message countless times before. They agree with her that government should be run like a business. They agree with her that taxes are too high in Maryland. They agree with her that government is too intrusive in their lives (and in determining the fortunes of their companies).

But there was hesitation in the crowd's reaction. In fact, Democrat Glendening seemed to stun the audience with his aggressiveness and success in attacking Ms. Sauerbrey's fiscal proposal early in the debate. By the end, most agreed it was close to a dead heat, which probably classifies as a moral victory for Mr. Glendening in such a hostile environment.

Why the hesitation in cheering on Ms. Sauerbrey's plan? Because the business leaders and their lobbyists had been given a series of sobering lectures during the day by politicians and fiscal analysts concerning the Sauerbrey approach.

The term that kept resurfacing during the chamber's sessions was, ''The numbers don't add up.''

Ms. Sauerbrey wants to cut taxes by 24 percent (over 4 years). Yet she also says she can give workers a 3 percent raise; increase local aid by 5.5 percent; increase the prison budget by 1 percent; avoid layoffs. The trick? Freezing all other programs in their tracks for the next four years.

If state operations are frozen next year, that would save $207 million. Off-limits are cuts in local aid and entitlements (most of which are protected by federal law). Now subtract $20 to $25 million in deficiency appropriations. Then subtract $148 million -- the current legislative estimate for next year's budget deficit. That wipes out most of the savings.

Where's the money going to come from to underwrite the Sauerbrey tax cut, which will cost $200 million in the first year?

It can be done, some analysts note, but not without dramatic consequences on people now receiving help from the state. And that, says Mr. Glendening, is the part of the story Ms. Sauerbrey refuses to talk about.

But let's assume the numbers do work. What would be the impact of freezing state spending where it is now for four years?

People would be hurt. Take the state programs for the developmentally disabled. Fifteen thousand are now in state programs. Another 8,000 are on waiting lists. Just to stay even with the current client list and handle those the state is obligated to help will cost an additional $9 million above current spending levels. A freeze would mean lopping hundreds, if not a thousand or so, individuals off these programs.

Or look at the prison situation. Opening the city's new central booking facility and the expected growth in the prison population will cost roughly $17 million next year. The ballooning prison population pushes up costs at a 5 percent annual clip. That can't be handled with a mere 1 percent rise in spending allocations.

Look at some of the other programs. Is Ms. Sauerbrey seriously going to freeze state spending on the Maryland State Police? Of course not. Is she going to impose a hiring freeze on troopers? On prison guards? On doctors for state mental hospitals? Of course not.

There would, indeed, be cutbacks in a Sauerbrey administration. That's the only way to make her plan work. (There'd also be lots of privatization, too.) But she's mum on where these cuts would occur.

Higher education would appear to be a prime candidate (because tuitions could be raised to offset the cuts). Aid to private colleges would be a loser. Local aid seems to present a fertile opportunity in the later years. Maryland Public Television had better start thinking about changing its name to Maryland Private Television -- Ms. Sauerbrey would love to eliminate its subsidy altogether. Aid to the city? That $34 million disparity grant could be a goner.

The basic problem is that so much of Maryland's budget is locked into programs that are beyond a governor's direct control. Some 222,000 Marylanders are on public assistance. Some 459,000 Marylanders receive public medical assistance. There are 21,600 inmates locked up in Maryland prisons (growing at 1,200 a year).

Education imposes an enormous burden on the state treasury, too. Providing aid for local schools (723,000 students) costs nearly $2 billion. Money for state colleges and community colleges costs $723 million (163,000 students).

Once all these considerations are taken into account, the Sauerbrey plan becomes less clear-cut. Yet the candidate's sound-bite statements are catchy and Reaganesque. Voters are enchanted by the idea of getting a tax break. They haven't focused on how it would be done. That's crafty politics. But it could make for broken promises and unwanted repercussions after the election.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun. His column appears here each Sunday.

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