Whatever happened to those golden eggs?

March 30, 2003|By C. Fraser Smith

THE ERA of big government is over even here in what some have called the People's Republic of Maryland. You can tell by looking at Annapolis.

Very Democratic and occasionally quite liberal, the Free State recently elected a Republican governor, the first in 36 years.

Even without a $1.8 billion budget deficit, the GOP's victory left no stomach for progressive, visionary and expensive social programs. Instead, Annapolis has become a charnel house of cutting, chopping, slicing and dicing.

But change is rooted in more than the economy and/or the Republican interlopers.

This year's General Assembly is dealing with its own spasm of big government - a splurge that may have been the death rattle of government spending. Last year's Assembly sought to balance spending on public education classroom-by-classroom across the state, when politics intruded.

Montgomery County, where spending is already the highest in the state for public education, worked a deal that gave its schools even more money, putting the state system out of balance in the very bill that was seeking to restore balance. Montgomery's votes were needed to pass the bill, so its senators got a $300 million sweetener. Here was the cake of big government with a cherry on top.

They may have killed the big government goose.

Sometimes admirably prudent, the election year Assembly gave in to its worst instincts and voted for a huge public expenditure with no clue how to pay for it. Slots were not widely seen as a solution then no matter what is said in Annapolis today. And almost everyone acknowledges that slots alone, even after fully installed, won't erase the deficit or cover the public school commitment.

But it's worse than that. Slots would add social problems just when the era of big government ends. The two sides in this debate - the for-slots and the agin-slots - will argue about the social costs, the costs of crime and the costs of lost productivity when more citizens succumb to slots as a way of life. But costs are there, and the idea of setting aside a few dollars to care for the casualties seems a pathetic gesture.

By providing these funds, government actually admits its policy will bring misery to some Maryland families. Big government may have been clumsy and inefficient, but it had more heart than that.

What the Assembly is doing this year is a forced retreat from the wretched excess of last year. Its members wanted to run then on the failsafe platform of aid to education, but now they are hacking away at a superstructure of worthy programs painstakingly constructed over decades.

Instead of looking for ways to avoid the cutting, all the focus is on slots and whether Maryland must have them to address the budget problem without raising taxes.

The determination to set taxes aside shows again that the era of big government is over. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. wants to wean Maryland away from government, to dull the spending reflex and to address what some call the revenue management side of government. It's a worthy enterprise, and a majority of voters said they wanted this approach.

Now they will watch as a tax-averse government, Democrat and Republican, slices deeply into higher education, shrinks the child care system, cuts after-school programs intended to keep kids off the drug corners and pulls out of tax credits that could save historic bits of Maryland that aren't surviving in the marketplace.

As it moves into the Assembly session's final days, the House and Senate may still consider additional taxes. Prudent legislative leaders hope to win taxing concessions from Governor Ehrlich before the session ends, knowing they have not addressed the deficit even if they pass slots. A less than satisfactory outcome is inevitable in the hurly-burly of last-minute negotiating.

What is needed is re-invigoration of the commission appointed by the Assembly last year to study the state's outdated fiscal structure. Without that study, political leaders will be patching together budgets with slot machines and helter-skelter tax increases on into the future. The shock and awe of deficits will continue, the analysts keep saying, until spending and income match.

Slots are just a diversion, useful to a few but damaging for the rest of us because they bring pain and they don't solve the fundamental problem. If the leadership can't find a way to do what it knows is needed, even the enemies of big government may look over their shoulders a bit wistfully.

C. Fraser Smith is an editorial writer for The Sun. His column appears Sundays.

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