Time to pay the budget piper

No way out: The General Assembly must take responsibility sidestepped by the governor.

January 23, 2002

THE GLENDENING administration should stop the spinning and start telling the truth about its unrealistic budgeting.

A respected budget analyst says Gov. Parris N. Glendening has laid out a spending plan that can't be sustained unless revenues spike beyond the most optimistic expectations. To base a budget on a nonexistent economic recovery clearly puts Maryland's fiscal health at risk.

Until this week, Democratic legislators seemed willing to hope the governor's plan might work. It's an election year, so they'd prefer to go home with government bonbons -- certainly not the bitter medicine of higher-than-anticipated taxes. But reality does bite, finally.

"Everything about this budget bothers me," said state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, chairwoman of the committee on budget and taxation.

Warren G. Deschenaux, the Assembly's chief fiscal watchdog, says the governor's budget works only on the basis of a "fictive forecast." Instead of a balance between spending and revenue, he predicts a deficit of $1 billion soon.

The $22.2 billion budget the administration submitted last week finds a precarious, and some say cynical, equipoise only by conducting what may be an unprecedented raid on programs of value. More than $334 million has been transferred from various earmarked program accounts -- as if those accounts had no purpose to begin with, as if they were "fat."

To give him his due, Mr. Glendening had a difficult chore. Three strong forces pushed him toward fiscal trouble: his own spending program, which ignored warnings about a possible downturn in the economy; the arrival of a recession, which many states saw and braced for last year; and structural difficulties: generous commitments for education or medical care, for example, that put increasing pressure on revenue.

Mr. Glendening's spokesman gamely responds to Mr. Deschenaux's verdict on the budget by calling it a typical "gloom and doom" assessment. That sort of thinking, the spokesman said, does not account for the adjustments that can be made if recovery does not occur soon.

But what if recovery turns out to be sluggish? Will Wall Street's analysts look at this year's spending plan and wonder whether Maryland still merits the AAA bond rating that has saved billions in borrowing costs over the years?

These questions now land before Senator Hoffman and other members of the Assembly's fiscal leadership.

Mr. Glendening has handed them the ball. He has set his own priorities -- and proposed to pay for them by taking from the taxpayers and from existing programs: $5 million from Shock Trauma, $70 million from the fund that supports insurance for high-risk drivers, $30 million from Program Open Space, $2.9 million from an uncompensated care fund used to reimburse hospitals for patients who can't pay.

Mr. Glendening may never again have to face the voters. So this can be thought of as his legacy budget, and, true to the issues he has pursued, he puts considerable new money into public education. In a sense, though, he funds his priorities by cutting into programs he cares less about -- and dares the Assembly to save them.

To raid these funds, legislators must change the laws that establish them. Or they could cut some of the increases proposed by the governor. The choices will not be easy -- but they will give legislators an opportunity to look prudent and responsible.

As always, the big-picture choices are easy: Cut spending, raise taxes, or brazen it out as if there's nothing to worry about beyond cries of wolf from the green-eyeshade guys.

The Assembly must avoid the third option at all costs, including the anger of voters who insist on that last dose of tax relief. We believe Marylanders are smart enough to know the value of legislators who will say no. If the word had been used more often -- or if politicians had been willing to point out that medical care for the poor and state-of-the-art trauma service are not free -- the crunch would be less severe.

Governor Glendening himself acknowledged that difficult times lie ahead when he elected to deny the final 2 percent cut in Maryland's income tax, creating $175 million he used to balance his budget.

The governor would have done everyone a favor had he engaged in more of that kind of forthright policy-making. Absent that, though, the tough choices fall to the legislature.

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