2 men decide state's budget

Control: That Maryland's governor and budget secretary have so much influence over a $22 billion yearly spending plan is causing increasing concerns.

October 05, 2003|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

EVER HEARD of James C. "Chip" DiPaula Jr.?

Few people have. But when it comes to how Maryland collects and spends money, the 41-year-old bureaucrat is the second-most important man in the state.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Sunday's Perspective section misspelled the name of an author of a University of Maryland, Baltimore County study on improving Maryland's budget process. He is Roy T. Meyers, an associate professor of political science and director of the Public Affairs Scholars Program.

DiPaula is the secretary of Department of Budget and Management. Lock him in a room with his boss, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., and the two can pretty much decide on their own how to spend $22 billion a year.

Maryland stands alone among states in the financial influence wielded by a governor with the strongest of the strong-executive type of budgeting.

A chief executive and a budget director create a spending plan to fit their political agenda and hand it to the General Assembly in January. Lawmakers can only make cuts. They can't add to programs. They can't move money from one area to another.

"Under the current system, the legislature is almost a nonplayer," said Sen. Patrick J. Hogan, a Montgomery County Democrat and vice-chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee. "We can't set spending priorities, and legislators of both parties were elected to represent their constituents. ... In the current system, everything is in the hands of one person."

Lawmakers are not alone in their concerns.

A study released last week by the Maryland Institute for Policy Analysis and Research at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County recommended significant changes to address problems caused by lopsided budget control.

Authors Roy T. Myers and Thomas S. Pilkerton argued that power should be shifted to the legislative branch through a constitutional amendment, and that responsibilities of a panel that examines how much the state can afford to spend in a given year should be broadened significantly.

"Rather than having stood the test of time, the strong executive budget in Maryland could be an anomaly that has survived longer than it should," Myers and Pilkerton wrote.

The UMBC authors said concentrated control by the executive branch removes the public from the budgeting process. It's much more difficult for interest groups and individuals to lobby the governor than it is to make their case at legislative hearings or through meetings with budget committee members.

Over the years, legislators have found ways to assert their authority by writing budget language that does not have the full force of law but still creates spending mandates and formulas that are generally followed.

One of the best known is the 2002 law that resulted from the Thornton Commission report, which spells out higher public school funding levels to meet the state constitutional requirement for adequate public schools. The General Assembly passed a formula but not the money to pay for it. Those types of mandates, Pilkerton and Myers said, constrict both the governor and the legislature, complicating the budget process.

"I would never argue that our budget process is significantly worse than the average state. It's not," said Myers, a former Congressional Budget Office analyst and editor of the Handbook of Government Budgeting. "On the other hand, there are some clear opportunities for improvements that would have relatively little cost."

He favors, among other things, allowing lawmakers to add money in some places and cut from others - as long as they don't exceed the total proposed by the governor. The governor could veto their alterations.

The state's fiscal condition is the dominant issue in Annapolis, with shortfalls between revenues and expenditures reaching $1 billion in a little more than a year, out of an overall budget of $22.4 billion. By law, the state cannot run a deficit, so higher taxes, new revenues or spending cuts, are needed to fill the gap.

Myers and Pilkerton said that a divided government - with a Republican governor and a Democrat-controlled legislature - will make compromise more difficult.

This year, Ehrlich dug in his heels, insisting that the Assembly legalize slot machines and insisting that he would veto a sales or income tax increase. He shows no signs of budging, and the outlines of the next budget that he and DiPaula will unveil in January are becoming clear: The next installment of Thornton will be funded, and there will be no tax increases, no money from slots and deep cuts in health care. The General Assembly will sit back and watch.

The pattern could be repeated as long as Ehrlich is in office.

"With the executive and legislative branches controlled by different parties for the first time in over thirty years, and the fact that divided governments often arrive at gridlock, there is reason to doubt that Maryland can effectively confront the large deficits that are projected for the coming years," the authors wrote.

Ehrlich smells a whiff of partisanship in the university analysis. "There was never any serious movement in this regard when there were Democrats in the governorship," he said last week.

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