Republicans' rise nationally could pinch Maryland

State could suffer from push to restrain federal spending

November 03, 2010|By Paul West, The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON — Maryland benefited far more than most states from the surge of federal stimulus spending since early 2009.

Now it could suffer disproportionately as a new Republican majority in Congress tries to make good on its pledge to shrink the size of government — an effort that could put renewed pressure on cash-strapped state and local governments, and threaten projects that depend on federal assistance.

"No question about it," Democratic Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin said in an interview.

Few areas of Maryland are likely to be spared as Washington turns its attention to curbing spending growth. Among those who could feel the pinch: taxpayers, commuters and government workers at all levels. In short: almost everyone.

Republicans in Congress want to cut federal spending by $100 billion. President Barack Obama has called for what amounts to a freeze on spending, starting in 2011.

For Maryland, the budget-tightening could hit military and health research facilities, road and mass transit programs, aid to state and local governments and the federal workforce.

Even liberal Democrats such as Cardin say it's time to deal with the budget deficit. In a morning-after statement issued by his 2012 reelection committee, he indicated that he'd gotten the message of the election: "We should have done more to jumpstart our ailing economy and help working-class and middle-class Americans keep faith in the American dream."

Cardin pointed out that stimulus spending was always designed to phase out after this year. And he maintains that federal spending can be brought under control without harming efforts to protect the Chesapeake Bay.

But it is by no means clear the bay will remain a funding priority, after voters delivered a sharp repudiation of Democratic leadership.

Representative-elect Andy Harris of Baltimore County, who will join the largest Republican freshman class in decades, said efforts to reduce pollution in the bay and improve the estuary's health, a priority of the Obama administration, could be set back.

"If it's going to be costly and if it's going to harm the economy, then I don't think it's going to be implemented as soon as it was going to be," he said. At the same time, if the federal bureaucracy shrinks, it's possible that government's ability to regulate existing cleanup agreements could be affected, too.

Harris says he's convinced that "Washington will exhibit much more fiscal restraint under a Republican-majority House than it did under one-party rule" by Democrats. He agrees that Marylanders could be hurt as the Republicans try to close down the spigot of taxpayer money but says that doesn't have to be the case.

"It depends on whether the state is nimble about this," said Harris, who has served a dozen years in the Democrat-dominated Maryland Senate.

If Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley and the state legislature "decide to place all their eggs in a government-employment basket, there could be a downside," Harris said.

But if Democrats in Annapolis "decide to make private-sector job growth a priority, it will dovetail with the efforts of the Congress and it could make [Maryland's] economic environment much more friendly to job creation," he said.

The new House of Representatives will have fewer Democratic members than any since the 1940s. That means Maryland's Democrat-heavy congressional delegation will be limited in its ability to protect the interests of one of the most Democratic states in the country.

Delegation members could even find themselves fighting an unlikely alliance between Obama and the Republicans, over ending earmarked spending and cutting the federal bureaucracy.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who has built her career on her ability to deliver federal aid to Maryland, has signaled a willingness to oppose Obama on federal workforce issues. She argues, for instance, that workers at the Maryland-based U.S. Food and Drug Administration, an agency funded by a panel she heads, should be added to those who are judged essential to national security, a category Obama and the Republicans would exclude from a freeze.

Quipped Harris, who can see how efforts to carve out exceptions could quickly undermine a frugality push: "All of a sudden there are going to be a lot of national-security items."

paul.west@baltsun.com

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