Lose the vote, win the argument

November 05, 1995|By Barry Rascovar

WE LIVE IN a time of curious paradoxes. In Washington, Republicans are crafting a budget that cuts $270 million out of Medicare and $170 billion out of federal agency spending over seven years -- while simultaneously giving taxpayers a $245 billion tax break.

On its face, such a move is illogical. You don't hear of many businesses fighting their way out of a big deficit by cutting expenses drastically while at the same time sharply reducing their ability to bring in revenue.

Traditional fiscal budgeting holds that first you cut your spending until you're in the black; then you can lower taxes. But the mantra of the '90s seems to be: ''We can have it all -- at once.''

We're about to find out what really happens when you try to accomplish paradoxical steps.

The state is embarking on a similar exercise. Only here, the prime culprits are not Republicans but terrified Democrats. They're scared to death that unless they out-Republican the Republicans the tide of public opinion will sweep them from office.

Thus, Gov. Parris Glendening has done a ''Sauerbrey'' -- embraced the 1994 GOP candidate's twin themes of slashing the size of government and also slashing the taxes being collected. Senate President Mike Miller and House Speaker Casper Taylor, too, fear the Republican trend and have prodded the governor to do a ''modified Sauerbrey'' on taxes.

Unlike Washington, Maryland balances its budget every year. There's no deficit to eliminate. The difficulty confronting the state comes from massive budget cuts being engineered in Washington by the Republicans.

Over a seven-year period, these cuts could cost Maryland $2.4 billion to $3.2 billion, depending on the shape of the eventual budget bill. Much of the pain is backloaded -- to avoid political anger before the next presidential election. Still, the size of the 1996 program cuts will shock many.

In the past, whenever important programs lost federal funds, the state filled the gap. But so many programs are being targeted this time that Annapolis cannot come to the rescue. The governor has made this clear. What Marylanders haven't realized yet is the extent of the cutbacks both in the State House and in local governments.

Baltimore's vulnerability

Baltimore is especially vulnerable, yet there's been little focus on the problem. Suburban counties will be hurt, too, especially in the Washington suburbs, where there will be cuts in federal aid and also large cuts in government jobs for county residents.

But these subdivisions have the option of raising taxes. Of course, some conservative officeholders have already foreclosed that option, which may leave them no choice but to shutter local programs. The brunt of these blows will fall on the poor, aged and ill who depend on government. Middle-class Maryland, too, will feel the pinch.

Mr. Glendening has dug himself an especially deep hole. Not only does he now have to play Scrooge as Washington devastates aid programs, he has adopted the Ellen Sauerbrey approach by saying he won't raise taxes this term.

Even worse, he has pledged, as she did, to lower the state income tax -- perhaps by as much as 10 percent. This will require additional program cuts.

So Marylanders will get the Sauerbrey approach, administered by the foe who defeated her and ridiculed her proposals.

In richer counties, the pain may not be felt as much. But in poorer subdivisions, or in subdivisions with tax caps or conservatives sworn to avoid tax increases, the only way to handle the coming crunch will be ''cut, cut, cut.''

Maybe that's what people want. Of course, when the cuts start to affect their own lives, their views may change.

Either way, things won't be the same. In Annapolis and in Washington, government's role is being altered. Our view of the two political parties may shift dramatically, too. The betting here is that combining heavy budget cuts and program cuts with tax reductions will exacerbate problems facing elected leaders. They are in for a rough ride in the last half of the '90s.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

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