Howard County human service providers heard nearly unrelenting bad news last week from local legislators preparing for the start of the General Assembly session.
Even the questions asked by members of the Association of Community Services at a Wednesday luncheon discussion, held at the Owen Brown Interfaith Center, reflected a general pessimism about the draconian choices that most consider likely as the state grapples with a projected $1.6 billion revenue shortfall. All four legislators at the event vowed to try to protect funding for human services, if they can.
Legislators were asked whether they were more likely to cut the amount of Medicaid paid per patient or the number of people getting help. Would they be more inclined to cut social services to poor people, or change the state's "maintenance of effort" law requiring local governments to at least maintain their current level of school spending or risk losing state money?
The only good news came from last winter's 2010 session. Del. Frank S. Turner, a Democrat, pointed out that the state produced a balanced budget, maintained its AAA bond rating, and that Maryland is better off than other states.
"Be glad you're not in New Jersey, New York or California," where things are much worse, he told about 60 people gathered for lunch and conversation. Turner serves on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee. Others at the event were Appropriations Committee members Del. Gail H. Bates, a Republican, and Del. Guy Guzzone, a Democrat. Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Democrat who is House delegation chairwoman and a member of the House Environmental Matters committee, also attended.
Bates pointed out that state officials went to extraordinary lengths to balance the budget. "We balanced it by taking money out of every pot available. We don't have a lot of options [for next year]. We've begged borrowed and stolen," she said.
The four were at first silent when asked what they would do if the state's low-income medical program must be cut. They were asked to choose whether they would cut the number of people on state Medicaid rolls or reduce the amount that the state pays for treatment.
Turner summed up the general feeling when he finally answered.
"It's kind of like asking, 'What kind of poison do you want? The kind that kills in 2 seconds or in 3 seconds?'"
"There's no good answer on that," Bates said. She had earlier said she would not support any reduction in Medicaid payments to doctors, because that would only push more doctors out of the program, making it harder for patients to find treatment.
The legislators made clear they are largely subject to what Gov. Martin O'Malley includes in his proposed budget next month, since the General Assembly can only cut, not add, items.
Guzzone said it's impossible to predict now what will happen because filling such a large budget hole might require solutions that could affect a range of programs.
In the meantime, the three Democrats said they would support an increase in Maryland's alcohol taxes, but Turner warned that members of his committee would probably want the revenue, if it passes, to help plug the fiscal gap instead of dedicating it for use by human service nonprofits or for medical care. "Ways and Means wants to put money into the General Fund," he said. Maryland still has a rainy-day fund, Turner said, and early slots revenue will help a little too.
When asked what other tax increases might draw support, Bates later said that she doesn't like the whole idea. "I just don't see raising taxes in this environment."
Bobo said she opposes cutting the Medicaid budget, which now enrolls about 600,000 Maryland residents, and added that she would fight to help pay for it by closing what she considers a business tax loophole. Bobo said tax laws allow corporations doing business in Maryland to pay lower taxes in other states instead of paying Maryland's taxes. But Bobo said she's convinced that a bill closing that loophole is going nowhere.
"I don't think this has a chance of passing," Bobo said about the tax measure, though she later added that despite that, "I intend to be very vocal on it." Although it may be true that lawmakers don't have much stomach for raising taxes, "I'm sure they won't be in the mood to cut services either."
Yogi Berra might have called Ken Ulman's campaign victory celebration party "déjà vu all over again."
That's what it seemed like the night of Dec. 10, more than a month after the long election campaign season ended, as the re-elected county executive and his supporters and volunteers gathered one more time for a "Thank You" party at the Hilton Garden Inn on Snowden River Parkway.
"I just wanted to say thanks to you all," Ulman said to the several hundred who came out for more hors d'oeuvres and revisit the election. But Ulman had a serious political point to make, too, one that looks more to the future than to the past.