A tighter belt

December 21, 2007

This week's decision by the General Assembly's Spending Affordability Committee to limit the growth of spending next year is a reasonable response to a softening economy. By historical standards, a 4.27 percent rate of increase is low, particularly at a time when government is being asked to allocate more for education and health care. But government spending should reflect the state's overall economic circumstance, and it's not difficult to see clouds on the horizon.

Clearly, Gov. Martin O'Malley is going to have to make some further reductions in spending. That may strike some as a peculiar circumstance given that the legislature agreed to raise taxes and cut some programs by more than $1.3 billion just last month. But the point of the spending affordability is to consider more than monthly tax receipts (which are, incidentally, running slightly better than expected).

While such caution is appropriate, what is not acceptable is any notion that the proper way to reduce spending is to dig deeper into kindergarten-to-12 public education or aid to local government in general.

Enough of that has been done. Mr. O'Malley's decision to tinker with Thornton aid - and, as a result, reduce education spending by about $150 million next year - was as serious a setback as we'd like to see schools dealt. Public education must remain a top priority of state government, and further reductions could be harmful.

Lawmakers already saw to it that Baltimore and the counties paid their share. Thanks to the higher personal exemption amount in the state's income tax and other reforms adopted during the special session, local revenues are expected to decline about a quarter-billion dollars in the coming year. Any further cuts in that area simply raise the likelihood that local taxes will be increased or vital services reduced to offset the shortfall.

The governor has a month to finalize a state budget that's due to the legislature on Jan. 16. Agency heads must meet lower spending targets - much as Mr. O'Malley ordered this year. Such savings represent the customary kind of belt-tightening that agencies - like average citizens - must do when events warrant.

There's a difference between solving a $1.7 billion deficit and implementing budget cuts of less than one-thirtieth that amount. The latter doesn't require draconian measures or new taxes. And it especially shouldn't require shortchanging schools.

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