Candidates pledge to maintain local aid

But projected shortfall will require other cuts, note Ehrlich, Townsend

October 05, 2002|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

As Maryland's budget gap grows, so too do election-year promises from gubernatorial candidates about what they won't cut.

Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. pledged yesterday not to reduce state money distributed to cities and towns despite a projected $1.7 billion budget shortfall that legislators must close by the spring.

The candidates made the promise at yesterday's fall conference of the Maryland Municipal League, an association of 157 localities. All four nominees for governor and lieutenant governor addressed the league during a meeting in Annapolis, a rare joint appearance in a campaign that has been short on debates and other face-to-face encounters.

Ehrlich called the budget gap a "big-time problem for a state our size," but said towns and cities won't share the burden. "I do not want to touch local aid," he said. "That was a baseline premise of my budget [plan]."

Townsend made a similar commitment: "Are there going to be cuts? Yes. Are we going to cut into core services? No. We certainly won't cut into local aid."

More than 90 percent of the money that Maryland sends to counties is in the form of funds for public education. Townsend and Ehrlich say education is a top priority and that funding for schools will be increased according to a landmark formula approved by the General Assembly this year.

Cities and towns typically receive funds for revitalization, land preservation purchases and parks and playgrounds, said Scott A. Hancock, executive director of the Maryland Municipal League.

Those programs are targets for officials seeking budget cuts because the funds often accumulate surpluses, and projects can take longer than expected to complete, leaving money unspent during delays.

Candidates' pledges are meeting some skepticism, however.

La Plata Mayor William F. Eckman said he doesn't believe that Townsend and Ehrlich can follow through on the commitment.

"There's obvious concern, even with the pledges," said Maryland Association of Counties Executive Director David Bliden. "But on the flip side, county officials are gaining some solace that these candidates are recognizing the fairness and political downside of cutting into education, public safety and local health at a time when these issues are predominant in the minds of citizens."

This week, Townsend told an audience at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health that she would not reduce the budget for the state Citizen's Review Board for Children, which oversees foster care.

Review board administrator Charles R. Cooper said yesterday that a hiring freeze has reduced his staff of 27 by four.

Townsend said she considers foster care programs a public-safety service, another area she has pledged not to cut.

As candidates for governor place more programs out of bounds, the pain suffered by remaining agencies could grow.

Townsend accused Ehrlich yesterday of singling out higher education for disproportionate reductions. She said Ehrlich has proposed 4 percent cuts for all agencies, but has excluded local aid, personnel, Medicaid and public safety -- leaving out $8.2 billion of a $10.6 billion general fund budget. His plan, she said, would force a $173 million cut in higher education.

Former Sen. Martin G. Madden of Howard County, who helped develop Ehrlich's proposal, said Townsend got the numbers wrong. Madden said many departments could generate savings averaging 4 percent and totaling $192 million, and the overall general fund budget would still grow.

Higher education would not be sacrificed, he said. "We are talking efficiency savings here, not cutting anything," Madden said.

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