Severe financial test seems certain for state

Shortfalls: Wise political stewardship necessary to avoid a $1.7-billion budget pothole.

November 16, 2001

NOTHING SHORT of instant economic recovery seems likely to shield Maryland from the cold blast of a grinding budget crisis.

Legislative leaders and Gov. Parris N. Glendening must begin immediately to determine how they will solve problems caused by lower-than-expected revenues - and overly ambitious spending.

A half-billion dollars or so in construction projects must surely be put on hold.

Mr. Glendening says he's confident Maryland's economy will solve the problems. Others call this confidence foolhardy and dangerous. But few doubt that very difficult times are ahead even if the current recession turns out to be a brief one. The governor has done preliminary economizing. He'll need to do more, and he should be planning to do so now.

The assembly convenes in less than two months to face a 90-day session in which the political dynamics will not be ideal for budget cutting. Mr. Glendening will be moving into his last - some will say legacy - year. He will be loath to cut spending for projects that could leave his mark on the state. A huge deficit, though, could leave a stain.

Legislators, meanwhile, will want to go home in the spring with programs and projects that enhance their chances for re-election next fall. They, too, must worry about the spectacle of mismanaged state assets.

That prospect will grow even if all hands act prudently. Some believe the $1.7 billion deficit could get deeper.

Some legislative leaders worry actively that nothing - not even the remote prospect of new revenue from slot machines - will be a sufficient tonic, particularly when proposed new spending for education and medical care will also be on the table.

Some are wondering whether the assembly should put the last years of a 10-percent income tax cut on hold. That remedy seems remote in an election year, but it wouldn't be a bad idea.

In the shorter term, the state will have to hold back on construction projects approved last year based on projected operating surpluses. The cash will be critically important for filling the gaps.

The time for responsible leadership and deferred political gratification is at hand.

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