Budget cutting pain peaks in Annapolis

Payback: Questionable decisions and political pandering force the Assembly to slice good programs.

March 08, 2002

A POWERFUL Baltimore senator accuses her Montgomery County colleagues of opposing a new school finance formula as if they were latter-day segregationists.

A Montgomery County senator resigns from a budget subcommittee saying he can't bear to wield the knife on programs he supports.

The mayor of Baltimore decries the General Assembly's chaotic budgeting process and its potential impact on successful drug treatment programs in his city.

Interest groups of every stripe marshal lobbying forces to fight cuts in their budgets.

In such a crossfire do Maryland's 188 legislators now struggle to manage a budget problem made more difficult by their own earlier failures.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening and the Assembly put Maryland on the path that ends now with budget-cutting pain that can't be avoided -- unless more revenue drops from the sky in the form of increased cigarette taxes, for example.

Yes, economic recession and the expenses related to Sept. 11 have been costly. But the Assembly went along with a spending plan last year that exceeded its own affordability guidelines -- and left the state scrambling to rebalance spending and revenue.

Lawmakers compounded the pain in this legislative session by electing to honor the fifth year of their promised five-year income tax reduction. Cost: $175 million.

That figure represents about $75 for a taxpayer with an income of $53,000. Now those taxpayers will see what price Maryland must pay for that political decision.

Baltimore, for example, stands to lose at least $2 million of a $9 million infusion for its important and effective drug treatment program. Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, chairwoman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, is credited by city officials with preventing a deeper cut.

Without Ms. Hoffman's influence, Baltimore would be in far worse shape. She apologized for her impolitic comments about Montgomery County -- a most regrettable remark born of budgeting stress. She and others would like to begin equalizing state aid to education -- an initiative opposed by some in Montgomery because their county, with much of the state's wealth, gets much less of the payout.

The "community legacy" program, used in Baltimore to restore vacant houses in neighborhoods teetering toward decline, will be funded at $2 million instead of $9 million. An earlier proposal to reduce grants to poorer counties apparently will survive.

The pain could be reduced if lawmakers delayed the tax cut, but they'd rather cut programs than explain to voters why it's important to keep the pressure on criminals, save sinking neighborhoods and maintain the momentum of higher education.

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