GOP comes to the table

Our view: Republican senators have proposed a plan to bring the state's budget in line

it has flaws, but it is specific and comprehensive and merits consideration

February 24, 2010

For years, Republicans in the General Assembly have been carping that Democrats spend too much, but rarely have they said what they would do instead. They occasionally propose an across-the-board spending cut - a bad idea that fails to set any priorities. But often they eschew specifics, saying that if they offered any, they would only be fodder for Democratic demagoguery. Their grandstanding has been particularly galling since the vast majority of them voted for the biggest spending increases in decades when a Republican held the governor's office.

Republican Sens. David Brinkley and E.J. Pipkin, then, deserve a lot of credit for the proposal they released yesterday. It sets out two goals that are hard to argue with: making progress toward eliminating long-term imbalances between state revenues and expenditures, and doing it in a way that does not lead to more tax increases. Their plan is specific, and many (though not all) of their ideas are good.

Maryland must balance its budget every year, and the recession has made that a painful exercise recently. Gov. Martin O'Malley has made billions in cuts, but projected expenses still far outstrip revenues in the next few years. Under the circumstances, the Republicans' ideas deserve to be taken seriously.

Eliminating the Geographic Cost of Education Index from the Thornton education formula would save the state $513 million over the next four years. Designed to recognize the higher cost of education in some jurisdictions, it was not phased in with the initial Thornton money, and given the massive increase in education spending over the last several years, and the degree to which K-12 schools have been held harmless from budget cuts, eliminating it is worth considering.

The biggest item in the Brinkley/Pipkin plan, splitting teacher retirement costs with local governments, would save more than $2 billion over four years. It's also a good idea in theory. Local governments effectively set the size of the benefit, so they should share in the cost. Rather than making the change all at once, as the Republicans propose, the state should set itself on a course to phase that idea in.

Another big-ticket item, increasing state employee pension contributions from 5 percent to 7 percent - $372 million in savings over four years - is probably also necessary, given the state's unfunded pension liabilities.

Other choices the senators make, such as cutting grants to private colleges and universities - while not ideal, given the state's reliance on a knowledge economy - are better than alternatives, such as deep cuts to social safety net programs. The same goes for ideas such as cutting subsidies to the Baltimore and Ocean City convention centers, reducing arts grants and eliminating stem cell research grants.

But the Republicans, who disproportionately represent rural areas of the state, make several proposals that would be devastating to Baltimore. They suggest eliminating crime-fighting grants, extending a freeze on police aid, eliminating a transportation grant to the city and capping the disparity grants that help Baltimore balance its budget - all at a time when the city is already struggling with a large budget gap.

Other suggestions appear to have less to do with balancing the budget than with furthering a political agenda. They would eliminate the state agency that enforces the prevailing wage law ($700,000 a year) and the Critical Areas Commission ($2.1 million). Amid the spending cuts, they also propose preserving tax breaks for Maryland mined coal at a cost of $4.5 million a year.

Democrats called for a bipartisan summit on the state budget yesterday in hopes of forcing Republicans to play their cards, and it looked for a time like the event would lead to no more than another pointless political showdown. Indeed, the House Republican caucus presented a plan that was more political than comprehensive. But the Republican senators produced something that acknowledges the difficult situation Maryland faces and offers reasonable ideas. In fact, it's hard to imagine that Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration hasn't at least thought about many of the same things. The Brinkley/Pipkin plan doesn't deserve to be adopted as-is, but it's not unreasonable to hope that it could play a constructive role in forging a bipartisan consensus on how to put Maryland's long-term budget in order.

Readers respond
That's interesting, aren't these the same Republicans that voted for the biggest spending increase in Maryland history four years ago, proposed by a Republican governor?


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