Budget lessons

May 24, 2004

HE'S A FISCAL conservative from Baltimore County. His budgets are so tight that even his most ardent foes find little to cut from them. As a politician, he's underestimated. He tends to say what's on his mind and he sticks to his guns.

Thinking of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.? Think again. Baltimore County's tightest politician with a nickel isn't from Arbutus. He's from Reisterstown, and he's a Democrat.

County Executive James T. Smith Jr. could teach the state's top leader a thing or two - and he's catching hell from the governor's office for doing just that.

On Thursday, the Baltimore County Council is set to approve Mr. Smith's $1.3 billion budget for the coming fiscal year after trimming just $1.1 million from it. And nearly 40 percent of that cut was simply a correction of an accounting error. That's the tiniest amount a county council has deleted from an executive's budget since - well, since last year, when Mr. Smith's budget set new standards for parsimony.

Compare that with Mr. Ehrlich, who submitted a $24.2 billion budget to the General Assembly in January and saw $367 million cut from it. The governor's budget may be 18 times as big as Baltimore County's, but apparently it comes with 333 times the fat. Mr. Smith's income and property tax rates are among the lowest in the region, too.

But what really seems to get the governor's goat is that Mr. Smith isn't shy about sticking up for Baltimore County residents. He recently spoke out publicly on a touchy subject - the governor's failure to address Maryland's long-term budget deficit. He questioned the governor's plans to balance future state budgets on the back of local governments - a move that could cost county taxpayers millions of dollars.

For such temerity (and truth-telling), Mr. Ehrlich struck back. His chief counsel recently wrote a sarcastic letter to Baltimore County legislators suggesting the governor is ready to cut tens of millions of dollars in state aid to the county.

It wasn't the first time Mr. Smith has riled Mr. Ehrlich. After Tropical Storm Isabel wreaked havoc on eastern Baltimore County last September, Mr. Smith questioned the response of insurance companies - and of Mr. Ehrlich's chief insurance regulator, Alfred W. Redmer Jr. He was ultimately proved right - there were some serious problems, and reforms in the flood insurance program are in the works. Mr. Smith's reward? Mr. Ehrlich is pushing for a Republican county executive in 2006.

The irony in all this, of course, is that Mr. Smith came into office with the reputation for being thin-skinned and irascible. Turns out that's the other politician from Baltimore County, the one who has trouble balancing a budget.

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