Making Do With Less

Our View: Gov. Martin O'malley Is Getting An Earful About Programs He Shouldn't Cut, But With Tax Revenues Down, Leaders Need To Find Things Maryland Can Do Without

July 20, 2009

No sooner had Gov. Martin O'Malley announced that he would be bringing hundreds of millions of dollars in additional budget cuts to the Board of Public Works for approval than the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees held a rally insisting he spare state workers. The union surely won't be the last interest group the governor hears from before he unveils his cuts, expected to total $300 million at Wednesday's board meeting and to be followed by another $400 million this fall. There's no shortage of advocates - including The Baltimore Sun's editorial board - who repeatedly insist that their favored program is too important to be cut.

So, for a change of pace, here are some ideas for places Maryland could save money:

* The tuition freeze for the University System of Maryland. Mr. O'Malley spent much of the 2006 campaign beating up on former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. for the hefty tuition increases that occurred under his term - as much as 40 percent at some institutions. In his first year in office, Mr. O'Malley managed to freeze tuition. He did it again in his second year and again in his third. Governor, we get the point. But continuing to hold down tuition means that families who can easily afford the full freight are getting off easy. A better system would allow the regents to raise tuition and to divert some of the proceeds into need-based scholarships. Savings: $16 million to $20 million.

* Legislative scholarships. Every legislator in Maryland gets money to dole out to favored constituents' children in the form of scholarships. In the past, money has gone to relatives, campaign contributors and others for whom there exists a clear conflict of interest. That program costs $11.3 million.

* Employee furloughs. Did you miss going to the Motor Vehicle Administration office on the day after Christmas? Probably not. Last year, state offices closed that day, as well as the day after New Year's, as part of a furlough program that had many employees take a handful of other unpaid days off throughout the year. Yes, it causes some pain for state workers, but it's better than layoffs and avoids significant disruptions of services for the citizens. Last year, the state saved $34 million.

* Aid to local governments. About $6.5 billion of the state's $14 billion operating budget goes straight to the counties and Baltimore City. Lawmakers have been talking for years about realigning costs between the state and counties, and there's good logic to it. For example, the state picks up 100 percent of the tab for teacher retirement plans, some $800 million this year, but it is the counties that, effectively, get to decide the size of the benefit. It would make sense to share those costs. But doing so would require legislation. One thing Mr. O'Malley could do more easily is to take back overpayments by the state to some local school districts. That's worth $30 million.

The governor will have to go far beyond those programs, but it would be helpful if state leaders could have an honest dialogue about programs that Maryland, in tough times, could do without. Republicans have been saying for years that the state has a spending problem, but their solution, too often, has been to suggest across-the-board spending reductions. That sounds good, but it masks the true effects of what those cuts will mean to the citizens. The GOP should step up and offer ideas of things Maryland just can't afford to do anymore. The governor could use all the help he can get.

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