Budget by bluster

Our view: No matter how Republicans and Democrats choose to posture, Maryland’s budget woes won’t be fixed without more candor, political courage

February 16, 2010

Blame it on cabin fever or election-year politicking, but Democrats and Republicans in Annapolis have not only grown more heated but downright peculiar in their discussions over the state budget. When the often-ignored GOP senators regard being given a forum to speak their minds as a bad thing, you know the antics inside the Maryland State House are getting even stranger than usual.

As one might expect, all the huff and puff adds up to not much more than hot air -- only useful if it could be directed toward melting this winter's snow. Should Republicans get a special hearing to voice their budget ideas, or should Democrats share that forum? Should GOP lawmakers just offer their proposals in committee or on the floor, in the customary budget-making process? The answers are about as important to the average Marylander as the shape of the latest snowflakes.

That's not to say that the minority party is wrong to describe the Democrats' proposed put-up-or-shut-up meeting on budget cuts as little more than political theater. Of course it is. Democrats are tired of Republicans taking pot-shots (and making gross misrepresentations) about the budget from the sidelines. But so what? Tax revenues have taken a nose dive off a steep cliff in recent years, thanks to the national economic recession, and the impact on state government was bound to be traumatic. No good idea for balancing the budget should be overlooked, no matter where or when it's expressed.

The reality of Maryland's plight, however, is that easy solutions don't exist. Those fixes have been done.

What's left can be distilled to about four remedies. The first is "ledger-demain," the one-time accounting tricks like employee furloughs or dipping into surplus funds, a strategy that Gov. Martin O'Malley has already tapped for next year's budget. The second is the classic "shift and shaft," such as cutting aid to local governments. While reducing state spending, the technique merely passes along the burden to the counties and Baltimore City. Taxpayers still get the bill. It's choices three and four that are the tough but lasting ones: Either cut state government programs and services to people or raise taxes and fees to cover future costs.

Republicans like to claim all that's needed is to reduce the growth of government over time. But when Mr. O'Malley actually does that -- and it means closing an Eastern Shore mental health facility, for example -- the hue and cry from the GOP side of the aisle is as loud as from anywhere.

Most of the state budget goes to just a few things -- education and medical care being the biggest components. Cutting them means real sacrifice -- less money for classroom instruction, higher tuition in state universities and colleges, shortchanging hospitals and care providers.

That's the reality. Where Maryland budget policy is clearly headed -- political showmanship or no -- is another year of embracing short-term fixes, hunkering down and hoping for the best. Might this lead to a tax hike after the election? Maybe. Unless the economy recovers, it's hard to believe that won't happen no matter what lawmakers do this year.

But it's also the same strategy that Republicans took when they had more power. When Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was governor, he also shifted, shafted and pulled out the accounting tricks when the economy soured. When the dust settled, the state general fund saw its biggest four-year growth in the last quarter-century, a rate that was obviously unsustainable.

The bottom line is that the State House is divided between partisans who think budget solutions are pain-free and those who seek to postpone the pain as long as possible. Neither of these approaches sounds like responsible leadership to us.

Readers respond

And about three, maybe four hours after this meeting is concluded, the discourse will be reduced to "neener neener."

The Dems in Annapolis, just like in Congress, need to take a stand, be willing to live with it and see it through!

Come hell or high water (as they both surely will come), see it through and by that earn the respect needed to actually govern. A respect that so many legislators seem to have traded in for polling reports.

Mr. Rational

The Republicans should absolutely attend the meeting. If the GOP has good ideas and presents them in a highly public forum, the Democrats will have to pay attention.


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