Md. needs deeper commitment to transparency

December 06, 2010|By Marta H. Mossburg

Saying Maryland has a balanced budget is akin to believing Lady Gaga is a natural blonde.

For years and multiple administrations, gubernatorial legerdemain shifted hundreds of millions earmarked for roads, schools and other programs into the general fund to fill its empty tank. Debt was issued to pay for those projects, forcing the bill onto future generations.

But Gov. Martin O'Malley has no place left to go this year and coming years, with deficits projected to be more than $2 billion and the state debt limit reached. That figure does not include the minimum $33 billion unfunded liability for pensions and health care liabilities. While Mr. O'Malley promises no new taxes, few options remain aside from really "making tough choices" that he previously faked by swapping money around and replacing cash with debt.

Many people in this state do not object to financing a big-government lifestyle. But no one should accept cooking the books.

That is why the Maryland Public Policy Institute (where I am a senior fellow) is hosting a transparency conference Wednesday in Annapolis with groups and speakers spanning the political spectrum. Speakers are Del. Heather Mizeur (Democrat of Montgomery County); Del. Warren Miller (Republican of Howard County); Sheila Weinberg from the Chicago-based Institute for Truth in Accounting; James Browning of Common Cause; and Kati Siconolfi of the American Legislative Exchange Council.

While the political viewpoints of speakers clash on many issues, they agree Marylanders should be able to easily find out how their government runs.

One of the items that will be addressed is model legislation from the Institute for Truth in Accounting to require budgets to account for long-term commitments. Those include pensions, health care, transportation projects and — particular to Maryland — escalating education costs each year due to 2002 legislation known as Thornton.

Understanding those costs is vitally important to the long-term health of the state. November testimony by Harford County Executive David Craig on behalf of the Maryland Association of Counties on the impact of Thornton shows why. Education staff employed by local school systems increased by 15.5 percent from 2002 to 2008 at the same time the state was making a big push to increase educators' salaries.

Mr. Craig noted that the demands of Thornton, combined with another state law that requires counties to spend at least the same amount on education as the year prior or lose state funding, has "forced most counties to slash funding for other important services well below prior funding levels, while education funding has essentially been held harmless. To accommodate these reductions, counties have drawn down rainy day and reserve funds, laid off employees, eliminated thousands of additional positions, and implemented furloughs and pay reductions."

If legislators had to do the math on the impact of Thornton prior to voting on it, would they have passed it? Maybe so. But at least they could not claim ignorance of the consequences of ever-higher salaries and bigger education staffs on other areas of county budgets.

With recent arrests of Prince George's County Executive Jack Johnson and a host of others in the county on corruption charges, greater financial accountability of elected officials should also be a top concern. James Browning, associate director for development of Common Cause, will discuss at the conference why all legislators' financial disclosure forms should be available online. While Mr. Johnson may have taken self-enrichment to a new level, Common Cause found in a 2004 study dozens of instances of legislators sponsoring or co-sponsoring bills that would benefit their outside employers.

He also will discuss why the practice of legislators' being able to ask who reviewed their information should end, as Marylanders should not fear retribution for perusing public files.

The speakers and Marylanders may disagree on the best policies to navigate ever-growing disparities between state revenue and state spending, but everyone should have the same facts to begin the discussion. Legislators have made some significant steps to increase openness in state government in recent years by putting grant information online and by live-streaming meetings. Thursday's panel discussion will outline ways legislators can make Maryland government even more responsive to the people who pay for it.

Marta H. Mossburg is a senior fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute and a fellow at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. Her column appears regularly in The Baltimore Sun. Her e-mail is martamossburg@gmail.com.

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