Time for responsible action in Annapolis

Budget: Maryland's future, not individual agendas, must guide tailoring of last Glendening budget.

March 17, 2002

TWO POTS of found money could solve this year's budget problems in Annapolis. But the most important words in that sentence are "this year's."

Even with an increase in the cigarette tax, the Assembly can and must pare back more of the spending proposals offered by outgoing Gov. Parris N. Glendening. Democratic legislators made their task more difficult by making an election-year decision to complete a promised income tax cut at a cost of $177 million.

The Senate cut the governor's budget by $500 million, a figure that includes the income tax cut. House leaders believe an additional $100 million must come out to produce a spending blueprint that will allow the state to operate this year -- and to reduce spending commitments for future years. Fiscal leaders quietly acknowledge that new taxes will be needed soon to cover immense new and unavoidable expenses next year.

The immediate problem could be eased further if Governor Glendening and Peter Angelos, the lawyer and Orioles owner, can settle a dispute over what the state owes Mr. Angelos' firm for its work on the $4 billion tobacco settlement. A deal there would produce an estimated $123 million now held in escrow. If no deal is struck, the money would remain out of reach for this year.

The Angelos matter adds drama to the annual game of end-of-session budget poker. Mr. Glendening dangles the prospect of settlement, hoping the Assembly will accommodate his environmental and education funding wish list totaling about $130 million. But if Mr. Angelos grows impatient or feels the state's demands are unacceptable, that money may be a will-o'-the-wisp now and a more expensive settlement later.

Lawmakers and the governor are in agreement, it appears, on raising the cigarette tax, but the two sides differ on how the money should be used. One proposal would put some of the money in the existing K-12 public education budget, some to support community mental health, some for environmental programs and some for higher education.

The Senate wants what has been called a down payment on the Thornton Commission's proposal to equalize state aid to education in classrooms across the state. That program, if and when it is adopted, would eventually cost $1.1 billion per year.

Yes, per year.

The total would be built into annual spending at a rate of $220 million per year over five years. The Assembly will be "spending" almost this much as it continues the income tax cut.

The governor and the House leadership think passing a Thornton formula this year without funding it makes no sense beyond politics.

All of this goes on in an atmosphere tinged with animosity. Many Montgomery County legislators oppose the Thornton proposal as another raid on their taxpayers. Some of Mr. Glendening's environmental bills have been killed.

Some opposition to Thornton springs from a desire to deny Mr. Glendening any credit for it.

For his part, the governor has threatened to veto elements of the budget, a move that could require starting all over again -- in a special session -- because some fund-transferring requires changes in current law. If the transfers don't happen, the budget falls out of balance.

One has to hope this is an empty threat uttered for purposes of getting legislators' attention.

Political poker can't be avoided and won't hurt -- as long as it doesn't turn into Russian roulette.

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