Facing the deficit

September 11, 2002

AS THE GENERAL election campaign gets under way, Marylanders must be told how the candidates plan to deal with the state's ominous budget deficit. So far, the candidates' responses have been disappointing.

The problem is no secret. Last winter, as legislators struggled to cover a billion-dollar shortfall, they knew another hole of equal depth loomed in the near future. House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. engineered a commission to recommend ways of covering commitments already made.

Comptroller William Donald Schaefer's most recent revenue projections indicate the next governor and the next legislature will indeed face a deficit of at least $1 billion. And they will face it with far less flexibility. Program accounts were scoured for every loose penny to balance this year's budget.

The Taylor commission's report won't come until after the election. But the candidates for governor -- Democratic Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Republican Congressman Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. -- should feel increased urgency to propose hard-eyed solutions.

Both say they will not raise taxes, at least not in the near term. Ms. Townsend shows admirable flexibility in this difficult area: In answers to questions posed by The Sun to all the gubernatorial candidates, she says: "If the day comes when our public schools and police departments need additional revenue, I will have the courage to say so."

She and Mr. Ehrlich could go further. Perhaps they could say Maryland -- one of the wealthiest states in the nation -- can afford a decent mental health system, a correctional system that deserves that name, better public education and other worthy programs. Marylanders need to be informed -- and challenged -- not simply protected from the fact that good and necessary services are not free.

Both candidates have offered incomplete remedies. Ms. Townsend favors another increase in the cigarette tax. Mr. Ehrlich promotes the addition of slot machine gambling at Maryland's race tracks, an enterprise that would raise at least $400 million, he and the legislative analysts say. But neither of these proposals reaches the level of stopgap. Where will the remaining dollars be found? Or, what spending will be cut?

In the short term, leaders say privately, the state may have to dip into its $500 million rainy day accounts, the last remaining cushion. Wall Street analysts -- who periodically assess a state's fiscal soundness -- may accept some use of that fund as long as there is a sound plan for replenishing it.

Voters deserve to hear with specificity how each candidate proposes to balance the checkbook. Marylanders should know what they're voting for. Yes, it will be difficult. But that's the name of the game. The state of Maryland is a $22 billion corporation. It needs a leader with all the skills: managerial, political and personal.

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