Almost a billion extra dollars are pouring into state government coffers -- enough to buy the Ravens four more football stadiums with money to spare -- and Marylanders have no shortage of ideas for how Gov. Parris N. Glendening should spend the windfall.
With apologies to Paul Simon, there must be 50,000 ways to spend the surplus.
Buy a new bus system, says environmental activist Dru Schmidt-Perkins.
Train budding entrepreneurs how to succeed in business, says Luke Durant, Santa Claus at Mondawmin Mall.
Enforce the laws against selling tobacco to children, says historian Taylor Branch.
Teach prisoners job skills, says Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos.
Improve math classes so kids know how much change to expect when they buy candy, says Highlandtown shopkeeper Alfred Ibrahim.
And while you're at it, he says, help the city put up Christmas decorations along Eastern Avenue.
Bigger tax credits for the working poor. Health coverage for the uninsured. A hefty raise for state workers. Greater protection for abused children. More police foot patrols in Baltimore. Roads in Southern Maryland.
These are some of the suggestions offered by dozens of Marylanders -- well known and obscure, rich and poor, from Garrett County to the Eastern Shore -- on how Glendening should channel the river of revenue flowing into the state treasury.
Most of the windfall comes from greater-than-expected tax collections, but it also includes excess money in reserve funds and the state's share of the national tobacco settlement.
The surplus can be calculated several ways -- and the number keeps being revised upward -- but the Department of Legislative Services recently estimated the total available for spending at $959 million.
How much is that? If the state did nothing but build elementary schools with the money, it could build more than 100. (Though no money would be left to hire teachers to staff those schools.)
If the state did nothing but build roads, it could build 23 miles of four-lane highways without borrowing a dollar.
And if it wanted to forgo extra spending and send a refund to each of 2.6 million Marylanders who filed personal income tax returns, the average check would be about $369.
Add the cost of all the suggestions for using the money and the conclusion is inescapable. Says Ioanna T. Morfessis, president of the Greater Baltimore Alliance, a regional marketing and economic development group: "A billion dollars sounds like a lot of money, but it doesn't go very far."
Under Maryland's Constitution, the governor has vast power to make those choices. The General Assembly can say no to his spending priorities but can't add money to the budget on its own.
The governor's budget proposal for the next fiscal year -- due to be released later this month -- may largely define the debate.
Some of the money has been committed, such as the $200 million Glendening wants to put aside to help replace the Woodrow Wilson Bridge over the next three years. The Assembly is unlikely to tamper with that project, which many consider Maryland's No. 1 transportation priority.
The governor has said he will earmark at least $250 million for school construction and repairs and has indicated that figure could grow.
Theoretically, he has enough money to fund the entire wish list of the state's 24 local jurisdictions -- more than $300 million and growing. But that's not likely to happen.
In making final decisions about his budget, Glendening could look to the example of other states that have amassed large surpluses in this era of national prosperity. The robust national economy has brought higher incomes, rising capital gains and more retail and auto sales, which have swollen government revenue from taxes and fees.
About 18 states have increased the size of their reserve funds as a hedge against an economic downturn. Maryland could do that, but its Rainy Day Fund has more money than lawmakers believe is required.
California plowed $157 million into maintenance of state parks. North Carolina raised teacher salaries. Maine poured much of the money into higher education construction projects -- a priority Glendening shares.
Some states have elected to give money back -- either in the form of one-time tax rebates or permanent tax cuts.
Virginia reduced its sales tax on food. Pennsylvania cut business taxes. Minnesota sent taxpayers a $1,250 sales tax rebate and cut its income tax.
Colorado will return about $600 million through a sales tax refund on 1999 income tax returns, which will reflect a 5 percent rate reduction retroactive to January 1999.
That's close to the example Morfessis would like to see Maryland follow. She says the state could increase its 10 percent income tax cut, being phased in, to 15 percent. That would cost the state more than $200 million a year in revenue by fiscal 2005, but she believes Maryland can afford it.