Smells like politics

April 13, 1995

Both Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's proposed $2.3 billion budget and City Council President Mary Pat Clarke's response to the spending plan carry that certain odor that's always stronger in the heat of a political campaign. Every incumbent who has to write a budget while trying to be re-elected assumes his opponent isn't likely to vouch for his competence by signing on to the spending plan.

Knowing that, the incumbent can either write a budget filled with so many things the public wants that his opponent fears attacking it or propose a budget that only gives the public what it really needs and not worry about election day.

Last year Mr. Schmoke tried it both ways. He first proposed an austere $2.2 billion budget that only added 54 new workers to the payroll. Then he reversed field three months later and successfully pushed for City Council approval of a property tax cut. The mayor's fiscal inconsistency had predictable results. By August Mr. Schmoke was announcing a hiring freeze through the current fiscal year to avoid layoffs.

This year, with the mayoral campaign against Mrs. Clarke in full swing, Mr. Schmoke has proposed a $2.3 billion budget that is only about 3 percent greater than this year's outlay. The modest increase seems reasonable until one considers that the city may have less revenue to spend and could be hit hard by cuts in federal funding.

Budget Director Edward J. Gallagher said the mayor's new budget proposal was based on a 7 percent increase in federal appropriations, some of it money already granted. But Congress is considering cuts that could reduce Baltimore's expected federal funds by as much as $70 million.

Those cuts would occur during a period when the city expects virtually no growth in its property tax collections and a $7 million reduction in income tax revenues.

Mrs. Clarke may not admit it, but as his opponent she can't help but relish Mr. Schmoke's predicament. Her response to the budget during Wednesday's Board of Estimates meeting seemed designed to hit Mr. Schmoke from both sides.

She chided Mr. Gallagher for not presenting a Spartan budget more reflective of possible federal cuts, while cautioning the mayor that she would fight for more money than his budget gives to the Pratt library system.

As the budget process continues, both candidates need to put aside politics and concentrate on fiscal realities. Too many big cities are in trouble for spending what they thought they might have. That shouldn't happen here.

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