Glendening is spending his way to November

March 01, 1998|By Barry Rascovar

IS PARRIS N. Glendening walking into a trap of his own making? Or is Maryland's governor once again about to outwit his political foes and set the stage for future election triumphs?

It depends to a large extent on the economy. The governor is pinning his future on a continued boom in tax revenues that would give him the cash to expand education and health services.

If the nation's economic expansion remains strong in Maryland, Mr. Glendening is the chief beneficiary. But if the growth rate dips or plunges, the governor could be staring at huge IOUs for these enlarged government services -- and loud charges of "deja vu all over again" from opponents.

Governor Spendening?

In the 1994 campaign, his foes called him "Parris Spendening" for his free-spending proposals. Now the governor is in position to implement some of those plans, thanks to a gusher of tax revenue.

Yet the governor's 1998 opponents are already warning of another Glendening peril -- big spending programs that lead to big budget deficits after he leaves office. That's what happened in Prince George's County, where County Executive Glendening signed sweet labor deals and took other fiscal steps that left his successor with a whopping $100 million deficit.

Is the same thing happening on the state level? Is Mr. Glendening going to spend his way to re-election this fall, then run for the U.S. Senate in 2000 and vacate the governor's mansion before the fiscal sky falls in on state government?

Mr. Glendening is at heart a Roosevelt Democrat who believes in the benevolence of government and its ability to help those in need. In his first few years as governor, he took a cautious line on spending because Maryland was not yet out of the recession of the early 1990s.

Now, faced with a fat surplus, Mr. Glendening is pumping money into primary and secondary schools, higher education, scholarships, health care for kids, pensions for teachers and state workers and services for the developmentally disabled.

The value of these programs isn't in question; it's the cost, especially in future years. In 2004, the Department of Legislative Services forecasts a budget gap of $539 million, which doesn't take into account many of the governor's current proposals:

Providing $300 million to end court-ordered school busing in low-performing Prince George's County and $250 million to even lower-performing Baltimore City schools over the next four years.

Providing services for individuals on the developmental disabilities waiting list would cost $18 million in state funds this year and $68 million in five years.

Providing free health care for children from families earning up to $32,000 a year would cost $27 million now, rising to at least $43 million in five years.

Providing more money for state colleges would cost $53 million in the next budget and total $635 million over four years.

Giving free tuition to science and technology majors at state colleges would cost $10 million this fall and $40 million in four years.

Add other big-ticket programs backed by the governor and you can see why fiscal conservatives are alarmed. Sure, the state can afford these initiatives now, but what happens when the growth in tax revenues stalls? That concern is compounded by the governor's reversal on tax cuts.

Initially, he opposed a large income-tax cut as a dangerous gimmick championed by his Republican opponent of 1994, Ellen R. Sauerbrey. Last year, though, with an election just over the horizon, he embraced a 10 percent income-tax cut over five years.

Now, with the general election within sight, he wants to double this year's tax cut. Before we reach November, the governor might feel enough political heat to talk of deeper and faster tax reductions.

This scares some legislators, who worry that we may be shrinking the state's revenue base just as the governor expands the scope of government spending and the economy cools.

The doom and gloom theory

For now, the governor clearly has the upper hand. Ms. Sauerbrey's task -- persuading voters that doom and gloom awaits Maryland in a second Glendening administration -- won't be easy while the stock market booms, job growth is strong and consumer confidence is high.

She has to hope that the long-predicted economic slowdown happens this summer -- and that voters have the foresight to worry about Democratic spending policies in Annapolis that could come back to haunt taxpayers early in the next century.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 3/01/98

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.