Budget showdown in Annapolis House-Senate divide: Fate of tax cut, city school reforms depend on final accord.

March 15, 1997

RARELY HAVE MARYLAND'S legislative chambers been so far apart on their view of the state budget. The House of Delegates has cut a hefty $76.1 million from the governor's spending plan to make room for an income-tax cut. But a key Senate committee has taken a more modest tack, shaving only $28.2 million -- not nearly enough to underwrite a tax cut.

Some of the differences are stark. Delegates, pressed by House Speaker Casper R. Taylor to make deep enough reductions to accommodate his tax-cut plan, slashed housing programs, neighborhood business development, industrial land acquisition, the economic development "sunny day" fund, the city school settlement, Prince George's County libraries and a critical program to fix internal flaws in state computers before they malfunction on Jan. 1, 2000.

Most of these are harmful cuts. For instance, money spent from the "sunny day" fund leads directly to thousands of new jobs. Delaying efforts to fix flawed state computers makes no sense at all, since it is imperative that this problem be resolved well before the year 2000. Cutting school and library aid and important housing and development programs to make room for a tax cut is counter-productive.

Other House actions should be rejected, too. Why lower the lottery agency's advertising budget by $2 million when that money is projected to generate an extra $20 million in revenue? Maryland would end up losing $18 million. Why renege on a legal promise to return $21 million borrowed from transportation agencies? That's a bookkeeping trick used to make the tax-cut numbers look better.

The Senate panel restored all these reductions. There is little sentiment for a tax cut if it comes at the expense of quality programs. And there is no sentiment to embrace dubious fiscal gimmicks. This sets the stage for a fascinating conference committee on the budget.

Revised revenue estimates give Gov. Parris Glendening and lawmakers another $70 million to play with. Much of that money, though, will go to suburban schools -- as part of a deal to win passage of the court-brokered reorganization of Baltimore City schools. That effort ought to be lawmakers' prime objective when considering the state budget. Imposing accountability, a new framework and added resources are essential if the city's failing schools are to be rescued.

Pub Date: 3/15/97

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