Glendening's budget is way off

January 28, 2001|By Barry Rascovar

SPENDENING is what Republican critics kept calling our governor in the last two statewide elections. Parris N. Glendening is nothing but a tax-and-spend liberal, they charged.

Now, Governor Glendening is proving them right.

His blockbuster budget for the coming year is perhaps the most irresponsible fiscal sleight-of-hand in the past quarter-century. Budget leaders in the General Assembly agree it is a deceptive and dishonest document.

Revenue collections are overly optimistic. Spending estimates are intentionally low-balled. Built-in government cost increases are simply ignored. The state's $811 million surplus is stripped down to a mere $25 million.

And yet with all that finagling, legislative analysts estimate this budget is out of whack by a staggering $559 million.

Even worse, it's likely that the March revenue estimates could be lowered this year instead of raised, as is the custom. A slowing national economy and rising energy costs could add to the deep budget hole being dug by Mr. Glendening.

Sure, the governor made legions of interest groups happy with his expansive budget proposal. But at what cost?

If Mr. Glendening were allowed to have his way, the next governor would almost certainly be forced to raise the sales tax and a host of other state levies.

Mr. Glendening's budget lets him claim all the credit for proposing vast increases in education, Smart Growth land-preservation programs, benefits for unionized state workers and health care. His successor gets to endure the wrath of taxpayers when they realize the Glendening legacy comes at a steep price.

This isn't the first time Mr. Glendening has played budget games. He left Prince George's County with a $100 million deficit and horrendous personnel headaches because of the sweetheart deals he had negotiated with labor unions as county executive.

It didn't matter because the Prince George's deficit wasn't discovered until Mr. Glendening was safely ensconced in the governor's mansion. During that campaign, he had crowed about the glowing state of affairs he'd created in Prince George's.

Ask his successor in office, Wayne Curry, and you get a starkly different view of a county left to climb out of an enormous financial and personnel crater.

This time, though, the governor has manipulated the budgetary numbers in a far more sweeping fashion. He's intent on spending every last cent of the state's surplus. And he's determined to spend even more money on state operations than tax revenue is bringing in.

That leaves legislative leaders in a tough bind.

The governor's budget is $209 million over their self-imposed spending cap -- their affordability limit. Additionally, the governor intentionally ignores ongoing costs, especially in Medicaid and health care, by $350 million.

Indeed, the budget is technically in balance only because the governor claims he'll save $136 million over the next year in unspecificed "efficiencies."

Big cuts must be made. That will make lots of groups mad. And lots of legislators will get mad at the governor, who connived to place lawmakers in this predicament.

Education could take a major hit, especially state colleges and universities which are budgeted for a $237 million increase. The governor's favorite program, Smart Growth, also will be chopped down to size. It's in line for a $73 million increase.

Large parts of the governor's pay-as-you-go construction program -- a staggering $648 million -- could be postponed anywhere from six to 18 months, or longer.

There's also talk among top fiscal leaders of imposing a spending embargo on the governor. They'd approve the budget as is, but then block certain spending projects from going forward.

That way, the General Assembly wouldn't make budget cuts only to see Mr. Glendening recycle the same money in new programs late in the legislative session.

This could become a key battleground over the next three months in Annapolis. On finances and spending, the legislature prides itself for steering the state in a cautious, prudent direction. Lawmakers aren't buying Mr. Glendening's budgetary boasts. The numbers don't add up.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor.

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