How To Fix The Budget

Maryland Residents Give Advice -- Both Serious And Frivolous -- About Where To Cut State Expenses And How To Increase Revenue

August 15, 2009|By Laura Smitherman and Julie Bykowicz | Laura Smitherman and Julie Bykowicz,laura.smitherman@baltsun.com and julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

If it were up to some budget-conscious Marylanders, state employees wouldn't get paid on their birthdays, and they would work in offices with thermostats set as high as 80 degrees in the summer.

And while the citizens of the Free State are at it, they would raise money for state coffers by taxing commuters and collecting additional gun permit fees by easing restrictions on who can legally carry handguns.

Gov. Martin O'Malley solicited ideas from the citizenry as he puzzles over how to slash another $470 million from a state budget that has already been whacked several times in recent years. More than 2,500 people answered the call, e-mailing suggestions that vary from the insightful to the draconian to the bizarre.

Administration officials insist the exercise wasn't a publicity stunt but an honest attempt to open a dialogue with citizens about the cash-strapped state budget and how tax dollars are spent. While some ideas will likely be dismissed outright, and others would do little to plug the shortfall, officials said they believe the exercise was educational for all involved.

"We want this to be a participatory process," said Budget Secretary T. Eloise Foster, who has the unenviable task of leading the budget-cutting. "When you ask for input, you get some good ideas, and I'm definitely open to ideas."

O'Malley, a Democrat, called it "quite the exercise in democracy."

Maryland's budget has been squeezed by slowing tax collections amid the national recession. Foster said about $250 million of the next round of budget cuts - to be accomplished by Labor Day - would come from aid to local governments. The rest is expected to come from state agencies' budgets and state employee compensation.

O'Malley said he has been dog-earing his stack of e-mail printouts and is still reading but so far has gotten the impression that citizens are "searching for answers and trying to be constructive."

Many of the suggestions centered on the state work force. The governor acknowledged it's "no secret" that he is strongly considering furloughs, and said he is paying particular attention to advice on how best to implement those mandatory days off without pay.

Many residents suggested furloughs on and around holidays and even on the employee's own birthday. Some called for 10-hour, four-day workweeks and closing state buildings on Mondays or Fridays.

A Baltimore resident wants to see five furlough days and fewer "office perks," such as free coffee. "Sorry, but at least they keep their job," the resident wrote.

Take-home vehicles for state workers proved another popular line of discussion. The O'Malley administration, in an online response to a sampling of suggestions, noted that the governor cut his fleet in half when he took office in 2007, and that the state charges most employees a commute charge.

The citizen comments also suggest they are paying attention to topics that have been hotly debated in Annapolis, including gambling, illegal immigration, welfare and college tuition.

Many wondered why the slot-machine parlors approved by voters last year aren't up and running. "SLOTS! SLOTS! SLOTS!" a Baltimore County resident exclaimed. Others offered that, had gambling been approved years ago, Maryland might not be in this financial quagmire.

Instead of nipping at the budget, some citizens want to see coffers padded by a variety of new or higher taxes. Fight the powerful alcohol lobby and raise that tax, some wrote. Bump up the sales tax and gas tax. How about a commuter tax like those that have been imposed in Philadelphia and New York City?

O'Malley's office dismissed those suggestions, pointing out that he signed into law an increase in the sales tax two years ago and that a commuter tax could put the state at a competitive disadvantage to its neighbors. As for increasing the alcohol tax, his office said, that has been repeatedly defeated in the General Assembly.

The governor said he was pleasantly surprised by the "sincere tone" of most of the suggestions, but that's not to say there weren't any off-topic musings.

One Baltimore County resident suggested that O'Malley sell the governor's mansion and give himself a pay cut. The e-mailer's rationale: because "obviously you're not doing a good job."

Out in left field, an Anne Arundel County resident wants Grandparent's Day moved from the end of the school year to the beginning. And a Baltimore resident wants to cut down on the number of police patrol cars to save money. "This will also help officers get back into shape," the citizen wrote.

To see the suggestions sent to the governor, and the 15 that turned up most frequently, go to governor.maryland.gov/budgetcuts.asp.

Topics people want the governor to address

EDUCATION

Suggestion: Lift the tuition freeze on public colleges and universities.

O'Malley's response: The freeze has made higher education more affordable.

VOTING

Suggestion: Forgo buying a new voting system.

O'Malley's response: The state is moving forward with the system, but a delay implementing part of it saves some hardware costs.

LAND PURCHASES

Suggestion: Don't buy so much land through Program Open Space.

O'Malley's response: Preserving open space also supports tourism, agriculture, forestry.

COMMUTING

Suggestion: Tax commuters who live out of state but work in Maryland.

O'Malley's response: Not currently considering; businesses resist and it's hard to apply equitably.

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