Promises, promises

June 27, 2007

We'll say this much: Gov. Martin O'Malley knows how to win over a bunch of mayors and other local government leaders. This week at a meeting of the Maryland Municipal League in Ocean City he pledged not to give them what is often called the "shift and shaft." That's when the state's elected leaders, in order to balance their own budget, shift the costs of various programs to towns and counties or "shaft" those local governments with a sizable cut in state aid.

Such cost-shifting has been common enough in the past. Former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. employed a bit of it. So did William Donald Schaefer when he was governor. No doubt Mr. O'Malley's own experience as a mayor left him with little interest in such Peter-paying-Paul budget-balancing tactics. The Maryland General Assembly may not be similarly inclined, of course.

Unfortunately, these crowd-pleasing promises aren't getting Mr. O'Malley any closer to devising a solution for a structural budget deficit that's projected to reach nearly $1.5 billion next year. In fact, they may be simply boxing him in and making the task a great deal more difficult.

The governor has already said no this year to raising the state property tax. He recently nixed a fairly routine increase in motor vehicle fees. And he has expressed strong support for state spending on higher education, transportation, and land preservation programs that his predecessor chose to raid to help balance the budget.

Those aren't necessarily the wrong choices for Maryland, but it's hard to make that judgment not knowing exactly what Mr. O'Malley has in mind. He's making modest budget reductions and has pledged to make government more efficient and accountable. Fair enough. But there's also been talk of tax reform - not just a scattershot of increases. That would require a serious rethinking of how state government is financed.

Taking options off the table wouldn't seem to help the effort. A considerable chunk of the deficit has come from the Thornton plan's $1.4 billion in additional spending on public schools - a substantial benefit to the counties. It would not seem unreasonable to expect local government, particularly the wealthier subdivisions, to play a role in the state budget solution in return.

Mr. O'Malley asked municipal leaders to lobby the General Assembly for tax increases on the state level to help them avoid the shaft. Perhaps they will. But first, it would be nice to know what tax proposals the governor, at least so far, isn't talking about.

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