Budget rebuttal

August 24, 2007

Last week in Annapolis, House Republicans gave a classic something-for-nothing pitch to mend Maryland's $1.5 billion deficit. On the surface, it sounded pretty reasonable - restrain the growth of state government and taxes won't have to be raised. But as with most anything of consequence, the devil is in the details, and the GOP plan is short on specifics.

Setting aside the $600 million the plan anticipates from the licensing of a whopping 15,000 slot machines at a half-dozen unnamed venues (surely a dubious proposal on many levels), the Republicans would have taxpayers believe that reducing government spending by a few percentage points has no adverse impact whatsoever. It would be nice if the world worked that way, but it doesn't.

The state budget grows much in the same way business costs grow - but with legal mandates. Thornton Commission education aid is projected to grow by more than 5 percent next year under a formula that takes into account inflation and school enrollment. School systems are counting on that money to pay teacher salaries and meet other rising expenses.

What would happen if the law were amended and the state reduced Thornton growth by about $189 million, as the Republican plan envisions? Most likely, local governments would have to make up the difference. That puts pressure on them to raise money through their chief funding mechanism, property taxes. That's a worst-case scenario for taxpayers.

But wait, there's more. The Republicans would reduce the growth in Medicaid by $76 million. The likely result? Either less health care for poor people or lower reimbursements for providers, which produces the same outcome. Higher education would be shortchanged by $32 million or so. State officials estimate such a reduction could translate into a 10 percent rise in college tuition.

It's one thing to advocate for budget cuts (or, more precisely, less growth in government), but Republicans need to own up to the consequences. Even Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the state's first GOP governor in a generation, declined to cut needed programs such as Thornton during his four years in office, preferring stopgap solutions like siphoning money from the Transportation Trust Fund and Program Open Space.

It's fair to squeeze out waste and inefficiencies from government, but it's unrealistic to expect nips and tucks to produce billions in savings. And voters have already made it clear that they want full funding of schools and other popular programs. That takes money, lots of it.

Gov. Martin O'Malley has only hinted at what his tax package will include. It would be nice to know more. But at least he acknowledges the reality of the state's woeful fiscal situation. It's easy to oppose all forms of taxes - until you have to craft a real-world budget.

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