Taxes and spending in Annapolis

Governor's choices: Legislature intent on reining in `Spendening's' plans for surplus funds

Agenda '99

Goals for the new year

January 18, 1999

GOV. Parris N. Glendening again runs the risk of being targeted as a big spender. His $17.7 billion budget, to be submitted in detail later this week, goes far beyond what conservative legislators have set as an affordable level of spending. A battle between the executive and legislative branches is inevitable as Mr. Glendening begins his second term this week.

Since the 1982 creation of a Spending Affordability Committee, lawmakers have attempted to control spending so it does not endanger Maryland's long-term financial well-being. When governors have tried to exceed the Assembly's "spending affordability limit," budget committees have not hesitated to cut back the executive's request.

That's the situation lawmakers face this week: The governor's budget demolishes this year's spending affordability ceiling by more than $150 million. Compounding matters is $155 million in the budget for higher education construction that is linked to a hike in the cigarette tax.

Mr. Glendening's budget request also includes:

$250 million for school renovations and construction.

$87 million more in higher education operating funds. This could grow by as much as $27 million in a supplemental request to implement task force recommendations for boosting the quality of public colleges and universities.

$6 million in scholarships, starting this fall, to ease an emerging teacher shortage.

Legislation creating a state program to add 1,000 specialized reading and math teachers, over three years. The eventual annual cost: $40 million.

An assumption of more Circuit Court expenses in every jurisdiction, starting next year. A full takeover of these costs would add $73 million to the state budget.

$112 million in increased pay for state workers, not counting new benefit costs for 1,461 contractual workers being converted to permanent, full-time status.

The budget information released so far does not include any rise in the gasoline tax to pay for costly road, bridge and mass transit projects. That decision could come this week or next.

Mr. Glendening recently spoke of the "great needs" in Maryland. Yet there will never be enough money to solve all of this state's problems and shortcomings. Priorities must be set; tough decisions must be made. The new Glendening budget lacks that discipline.

In his first four budgets, the governor charted a moderate course. But as the state's economy perked up and then took off, Mr. Glendening embraced new spending.

Maryland's economic picture is brighter than it has been since the mid-1980s. There's $200 million of surplus revenue in the current fiscal year, plus another $636 million set aside to help pay for a phased-in income-tax cut and to guard against a rainy day.

There's also the big legal settlement with tobacco companies that could pour as much as $175 million into state coffers later this year -- and more in future years.

Legislative leaders have urged the governor -- and we agree -- that surplus funds be used for one-time expenses, such as education buildings and fixing the computer-related "year 2000 problem." This he has done in his new budget.

But the governor also has boosted on-going spending to the point that it could come back to haunt the state once economic good times change.

Mr. Glendening's expansive budget request is reviving Republican catcalls of "Parris Spendening." His budget blueprint is so ambitious and costly that the governor's fellow Democrats also are voicing concern.

The days of bulging surpluses won't last forever. We must not put the state in a deficit position once the good times end.

Pub Date: 1/18/99

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