Ehrlich likes budget chart, so he reuses it

THE POLITICAL GAME

Gap? The governor's analysis and that of the Department of Legislative Services differ on way the state has spent money.

January 28, 2003|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

BOB EHRLICH likes the chart so much, he's used it three times now.

The graphic was first displayed during his campaign, then when he released his operating budget, and again when the capital budget came out last week.

The chart shows two lines, one representing growth in personal income of Marylanders, and a second representing the growth in the state budget.

Since 1999, the state budget line outdistances the income line. Ehrlich calls the distance between the two lines in 2003 a "credibility gap."

Government under the previous Democratic administration has not lived within its means, the governor says. That's why he opposes tax increases. First, the gap must shrink and spending must be brought in line.

But not everyone thinks the gap exists.

The state Department of Legislative Services, known for its sober budget analyses, published similar information in graphic form in November.

Its chart shows that for every year since 1984 (with the exception of 1990 and 1991), the state budget has grown at a slower rate than the personal income of Marylanders, not faster.

That's the whole point of the Spending Affordability Committee, which makes recommendations to limit the growth of the state budget so that it does not exceed the growth rate of the state economy.

While Gov. Parris N. Glendening's budgets often exceeded spending affordability guidelines, the General Assembly always cut them back.

So where does Ehrlich's chart come from? Why not use the figures from Legislative Services?

Asked to explain the difference, budget Secretary James C. "Chip" DiPaula says the new administration's information is more accurate: If federal funds and capital expenses like school construction are included in spending totals, then budget growth exceeds the rate of personal income growth.

During the past few years, Glendening and lawmakers used some of the state's surplus on one-time project expenses such as repairing leaky school roofs and building classroom additions. It's a common practice in many counties, and one that was widely viewed as sensible because it did not expand the size of government agencies.

Neither capital expenses nor federal funds are considered when the Spending Affordability Committee - made up of top lawmakers and business leaders - comes up with its recommendations. But DiPaula said they should still be included in any assessment of the state's budget problem.

Credibility, it appears, depends on who is drawing the graph.

Governor turns out lights, leaving delegate in dark

State finances are in such poor shape that Ehrlich appears to be saving money a few kilowatts at a time.

Last week, the governor ducked into the bathroom in the Lowe House Office Building before a meeting of the Baltimore House delegation.

When he emerged, he flipped the switch off, leaving Del. Brian K. McHale of Baltimore in darkness.

"These are austere times, but they're not that bad," McHale told the governor. If the General Assembly does its job and helps fix the budget, McHale said, "You may not have to do that every time."

Comptroller's swearing-in is Ehrlich-Schaefer love-in

Last week's swearing-in of Democratic Comptroller William Donald Schaefer was an unabashed love feast, with Republican Ehrlich - who conducted the ceremony - saying he had looked forward to it since taking office a week earlier.

"We love you for one central reason," Ehrlich told Schaefer before a crowd that packed the House chambers. "You scare us."

"The real reason we love you is you wear your heart where we can all see it," the governor continued. "When it comes out of your mouth, it comes out of your heart."

Schaefer returned the compliment, saying he believed Ehrlich will make a great governor.

"I've been waiting four years for this," Schaefer said, referring to the opportunity to be sworn in by a governor other than Glendening.

It's unlikely that Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. will be making similar comments when he's sworn in today by Ehrlich for his fifth term.

Lt. Gov. Steele's popularity is increasing, poll shows

A poll released last week by Gonzales/Arscott Research and Communications Inc. showed that the popularity of Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele is soaring.

Hardly known when he joined the Ehrlich ticket last summer, Steele's name is recognized by 86 percent of Marylanders. Forty-three percent view him favorably, compared with 8 percent who have an unfavorable opinion.

The survey also shows that a plurality of voters - 35 percent - think legalizing slot machines is the best way to solve Maryland's budget deficit. A quarter said increasing the tax rate for people earning $100,000 or more is the best solution; 23 percent prefer cutting spending in state programs. Only 5 percent say a solution lies in a sales tax increase.

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