Ehrlich's free-spending budget

Governor disregards GOP-sponsored affordability guidelines

March 05, 2006|By ANDREW A. GREEN | ANDREW A. GREEN,SUN REPORTER

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. poured millions into his budget proposal this year for universities and colleges, programs for the disabled and school construction, calling for the highest spending growth rate in a quarter-century.

In doing so, he ignored one of the most significant achievements of the Maryland Republican Party in recent decades - the creation of guidelines designed to stop the state budget from increasing faster than the economy.

For years, the need to stay within the bounds of what are known as spending affordability guidelines was dogma for fiscally conservative Republicans in Annapolis, some of whom now hold high-ranking posts in the Ehrlich administration.

The policy - codified in the early 1980s and copied by Baltimore County and other localities - was a signature issue of former House of Delegates minority leader and two-time GOP gubernatorial nominee Ellen R. Sauerbrey.

But buoyed by surpluses produced by Maryland's strong economy and real estate market, Ehrlich proposed a budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 more than $200 million higher than the Spending Affordability Committee's original recommendation. That would already have allowed for the biggest budget increase in more than a decade.

Ehrlich said last week that the guidelines, developed by a legislative committee that includes business experts as advisers, are simply not something he feels the need to follow.

"There's a problem inherent in any subjective analysis, and this is pretty subjective," Ehrlich said.

Politics and arbitrariness are driving the way the legislature sets the limits, the governor said. In each of the past two years, he noted, the committee raised its recommendation after seeing his budgets. The revised estimate reduced by half the gap between the guideline and Ehrlich's spending proposal, and meant that fewer budget cuts were needed.

But others see his disregard for the limits as indicative of a new paradigm in the Maryland Republican Party, which finally has at its disposal the power of the purse. Critics say Ehrlich has found it easier to spend on politically popular programs than to make the cuts that a Sauerbrey-like vision for lower taxes and smaller government would require, particularly in an election year. That's the same pattern, they say, established by Republicans in charge of Congress and the White House.

"Everybody was criticized for years for going over spending affordability. It was the battle cry of the Republicans," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch. "It's a mythology that Republicans cut spending. It's pure myth, whether it's on the local level or the federal level."

Maryland's Spending Affordability Committee was established in 1982 to study projected revenues and expenditures and make recommendations to ensure state spending doesn't grow faster than the economy. Fiscally conservative Republicans including Sauerbrey and former Sen. John A. Cade of Anne Arundel County were instrumental in its passage.

Sauerbrey, who is now the assistant secretary of state for Population, Refugees and Migration in the Bush administration, could not be reached for comment Friday. But she has written extensively over the years about her views on the importance of spending affordability guidelines.

In a 2001 commentary in The Sun criticizing the legislature for not holding then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening to strict spending affordability limits, Sauerbrey wrote that Maryland's leaders should have learned that "the most dangerous time for state budgets is a time of surplus." Then, she said, leaders are tempted to commit themselves to more spending than they can afford when the economy sours.

"Spending affordability, while not perfect, has helped to maintain fiscal sanity in Maryland for two decades. However, if the legislature is not committed to forcing the governor to live within limits, the process is dead," she wrote.

Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, the Howard County Democrat who co-chairs the Spending Affordability Committee, said the governor is now threatening the process.

In Maryland, the governor proposes the budget, and the legislature can generally only cut from it. The General Assembly can bring a governor's proposal down to the limit, but it can be politically more difficult for legislators to cut items than for the governor to leave them out.

Relying on legislators to make the cuts, Sauerbrey wrote in another Sun commentary, is like asking them to take Christmas presents away after they're already under the tree.

Legislative leaders say they intend to cut at least $100 million from Ehrlich's $14.8 billion operating budget to keep expenditures in line with the affordability guidelines. The overall state budget is $29.6 billion.

Kasemeyer said that if governors stop paying attention to the limits, it will jeopardize the state's strong fiscal standing.

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