WHAT'S HAPPENING in Annapolis with Gov. Parris N. Glendening's bloated budget is as if people were being cheated out of a week's salary.
When legislators arrived in Annapolis in January, the state was forecasting a tax surplus of nearly $400 million by the end of the fiscal year, on June 30.
If the economy picks up, thanks to federal tax cuts and Federal Reserve Board interest rate cuts, the actual tax surplus could be significantly higher. Last year, it reached $930 million.
These overpayments are not trivial. In merely two years, they add up to $1.3 billion. That's $680 per Maryland household, or the equivalent of a week's salary for the average Maryland wage-earner -- enough to pay back-to-school expenses for most families for two years, or two months of utilities bills.
If you went to a restaurant and ran up a bill of $56.20 and gave the waiter a $100 bill, you wouldn't expect him to keep the change. But that's what Governor Glendening has done by spending the state's tax surplus. And he's doing it without so much as a by-your-leave.
The Maryland Taxpayers Association (MTA) -- the only state-wide grass-roots organization that represents individual taxpayers in our state -- believes this money should be given back to its rightful owners: the taxpayers. But Mr. Glendening and the big spenders in Annapolis think they are entitled to spend it.
With a $21.3 billion state budget that busts all spending caps, Governor Glendening is asking the legislature to cheat taxpayers out of the money they were overcharged by the state. This is money that never should have been deducted from workers' paychecks because it was never budgeted in the first place. It is money that filled state coffers because Marylanders worked hard and produced much.
How will it be used? That depends on Mr. Glendening's whim of the week.
Some of the money will go to create new entitlements, some to create state jobs. Lots will go to building marble palaces throughout the University of Maryland system, where we are told the governor would like to land after leaving office.
Mr. Glendening's priorities include rich payoffs to union bosses who have contributed handsomely to his election campaigns. Union featherbedding laws, introduced by the governor last year, are already driving up the cost of building new schools by an estimated 20 percent across the state and are expected to add about $150 million to Maryland's share of the cost of rebuilding the Wilson bridge, according to a recent study by University of Baltimore economics professor Armand J. Thieblot.
But Mr. Glendening is not merely content to spend the tax surplus: he is also dipping deeply into the state's rainy day fund and creating obligations that will have to be funded for years to come, good times or bad. Some legislators, such as Eastern Shore Republican Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, still remember the 1991-1992 economic downturn when the state scrambled to cut a bloated work force and overgenerous social programs built up during fat times.
"You didn't even see a single-sided piece of paper around here back then," he told me recently. "Have people forgotten?"
This is fiscally irresponsible and will leave the state facing huge deficits, just as Prince George's County faced after Mr. Glendening's tenure as county executive.
Marylanders are taxed sufficiently and already provide more than enough revenue at current tax rates to generously fund the state's needs. We will have new schools and carry out needed repairs on existing ones without raising tax rates or spending the tax surplus. We will even have much-needed new roads -- if the governor will agree to build them.
The MTA believes Marylanders should have the opportunity to vote on whether the state should refund their tax overpayments. That's why we back a return-the-tax-surplus amendment to the Maryland constitution in this year's legislative session.
This proposal does not mandate a tax refund. It places the issue on the ballot of the next general election so the people of Maryland can decide for themselves. Oregon and Colorado already have similar provisions. Maryland should, too.
Kenneth R. Timmerman, a former candidate in the Maryland Republican primary for the U.S. Senate, is president of the Maryland Taxpayers Association Inc. He lives in Kensington.