A little off the top

May 15, 2007

Gov. Martin O'Malley's recent decision to order his Cabinet secretaries to cut their budgets by a collective $200 million is a welcome, if slightly overdue, event. After all, wasn't the O'Malley administration defending its entire $30 billion budget to the General Assembly just last month?

But better late than never. The state is headed toward a budget deficit of $1.4 billion to $1.5 billion in fiscal 2009, and the sooner spending is reduced, where appropriate, the better.

But let's keep some perspective. Cutting nearly $50 million from current spending and an additional $150 million in the recently passed 2008 budget should not do great damage to state government. It amounts to a 1 percent reduction in the general fund portion of the budget (2.5 percent if one doesn't count local aid and entitlement programs). Cutting overtime, deleting vacant positions and trimming certain grants to local governments will likely get most of the job done. Private companies routinely make bigger spending cuts when they don't meet their quarterly sales goals.

What Mr. O'Malley is doing, however, is demonstrating to taxpayers that he's serious about squeezing out the waste and inefficiencies in state government. That's commendable; it just doesn't solve the chronic structural deficit. Just ask Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who went through similar exercises when he was elected. Squeezing out a fraction of 1 percent of spending is one thing; carving out a great deal more would require attacking a veritable herd of sacred cows - many of which deserve that status.

Most state tax dollars don't go to paying for new office furniture, excess travel or overtime to bureaucrats. More than 50 percent of the state budget goes directly into public education and health care for the poor. Half of the remaining balance goes to other health care programs and public safety. Voters didn't elect Mr. O'Malley last fall because he promised fewer police officers, bigger elementary school class sizes or more crowded hospital emergency rooms.

The structural deficit is largely the creation of two politically popular choices: Gov. Parris N. Glendening's 10 percent reduction in the state's income tax rate and the $1.3 billion Thornton education aid package. In the short term, deficits can be made up by ransacking transportation and land conservation programs, and raising fees, as Mr. Ehrlich did. A more permanent solution is going to require a tax increase of some kind.

Before such a proposal can be seriously considered, however, all other alternatives must be exhausted. Mr. O'Malley's choice to pare government before daring to do the same to taxpayer wallets is a necessary first step.

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