Maryland's budget mess has arrived at an inopportune time for Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, endangering a portfolio of programs she has carefully constructed over seven years.
Townsend has been an active participant in administration budget meetings in recent weeks, state officials say, working to preserve funding for criminal justice, drug treatment, economic development and other sectors where she has staked her reputation.
Her efforts come as tax revenues are slumping and Gov. Parris N. Glendening is considering cuts to many state agencies.
The lieutenant governor hopes to protect her so-called "signature initiatives," such as the HotSpots crime-fighting project and after-school services. The programs have allowed her to travel the state since taking office in 1995, building good will among community leaders who receive grant money and attention.
They also have raised Townsend's profile as a crime fighter and a friend to business as she prepares for an all but certain run for governor in 2002.
"Good policy is good politics," she once told The Sun, and next year was supposed to be the time when her policy investments paid their political dividends.
They still might. But with the rapid onset of the recession, the best Townsend can hope for is to keep funding at existing levels for favored projects. Preserving the status quo could be seen as a coup.
"Programs that she advocates for in this budget will do well, because of her advocacy," said Mike Morrill, a spokesman for Glendening. "They are not the first ones on the chopping block."
Townsend is not troubled by the belt tightening, said Alan H. Fleischmann, her chief of staff. The time is right, he said, to step back and evaluate ideas that have received huge cash infusions during several years of budget surpluses.
"Almost every one of the areas she has taken on have been uncharted territory," Fleischmann said. "Maintenance is good, if you've had seven years of investment."
The extent of Townsend's influence won't be apparent for several weeks. Glendening is due to release his fiscal 2003 spending proposal Jan. 16. With tax revenues for next year projected at $520 million less than once expected, and automatic increases in salaries, school funding and other areas totaling $700 million, the administration's budget office must somehow fill a gap of more than $1 billion. The current state budget is $22 billion.
"Everything this year is on the table," Morrill said. "We've already had to make budget cuts. There are many additional tough decisions ahead."
The General Assembly will likely look for more cuts after Glendening unveils his proposal. Some legislative leaders want to spend up to $150 million as the first installment on a recommendation from a blue-ribbon panel calling for an additional $1.1 billion yearly for public schools. To find the money, they would have to move it from other areas.
Lawmakers will nonetheless look kindly on the programs championed by Townsend, said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. of Allegany County.
"I think the legislature will probably give more deference to her priorities because the majority of the legislature will obviously want to see her get elected," said Taylor. The speaker and an overwhelming majority in the legislature are Democrats, as are Townsend and Glendening.
Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat and head of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, said Townsend has shown the most interest in areas lawmakers are loath to reduce.
"I think her programs will probably be OK in this budget because they are criminal justice programs," Hoffman said. "You don't have a lot of choice. You have to fund it."
Still, some of Townsend's favored initiatives are programs that started small and could be expanded. Next year, however, is no time for growth.
Maryland has designated 62 HotSpots, areas where police, probation officers, social workers and community activists coordinate to fight crime. With 24 sites in Baltimore and other locations in every county, the program distributes $3.5 million in state funds and a similar amount of federal money each year. HotSpots funds won't be cut in 2003, officials said, but the program won't expand.
Since taking office in 1995, Townsend has helped to increase the number of state-funded after-school programs from 17 to 282, and the state spends about $14 million a year on them. But studies shows that some programs are much less effective than others, Townsend aides say, and the lieutenant governor decided about six months ago not to seek more money next year. "The research says they can work, but it's really difficult," said Michael A. Sarbanes, a top policy adviser to Townsend.