With a possible gas tax increase looming in the fall special session of the Maryland General Assembly, the battle between Howard County's Democrats and Republicans over state spending erupted anew at a Chamber of Commerce breakfast forum.
The event Wednesday at the Doubletree Hotel in Columbia, billed as a look back at the recent General Assembly session, turned instead into a battle of competing visions. The special session is supposed to deal mainly with redrawing congressional district boundaries based on last year's census, but legislators also expect to decide on some way to raise more money for transportation projects after years of draining the fund to plug holes in the budget.
Democrats like Senate Budget and Taxation Committee Chairman Edward J. Kasemeyer argued that Maryland is in far better shape than most other states. He said the persistent gap between revenues and expenditures could be closed over the next two years, while also trimming pension and health care liabilities for state retirees. This, he said, is a time when the state is losing emergency federal aid while local revenues are just starting to come back.
"It is all about balance," Kasemeyer said after several rounds of back-and-forth comments. "We are sort of unique in the Mid-Atlantic area," he said, unlike big-spending states like New York and New Jersey, but also different from more conservative neighbors like Virginia. "In Howard County, you find more balanced people who look at both sides."
Besides, Kasemeyer said, "our deficit is insignificant compared to most states'." Instead of a deficit half as large as the state's total budget "ours is under 10 percent. It's a very manageable thing. We're not going to have a deficit in three years as long as I'm [committee] chairman," he vowed. Maryland still has $650 million set aside for emergencies and a AAA bond rating, Democrats pointed out.
That's not how Republicans see it.
Republican Sen. Allan H. Kittleman and Dels. Gail H. Bates and Warren E. Miller attacked Democrats, who control state government, as too free-spending to ever get back to raising enough money each year to meet planned spending.
Bates called Maryland's spending "a potential train wreck," saying Republicans would have cut $620 million more this year. "All the pressure in Annapolis is to spend more," Miller added. "There will never be enough revenues to fix it. Somebody always wants to do something nice for somebody."
Kittleman attacked Maryland laws that require higher, union-scale wages on government construction projects, 13 more weeks of unemployment benefits paid for by business owners, and new requirements that home health care workers either join a union or pay a union fee. Businesses can't hire due to this heavy load, he said.
He also criticized legislators for having the state pay for hotel rooms throughout the 90-day session when they often don't use them on weekends. His bill to require legislators who live within 50 miles of Annapolis to drive home each night would have saved hundreds of thousands of dollars, he said, but it failed.
"If you expect legislators to watch your pocketbook when they don't watch their own, beware," he said.
Asked by an audience member if state budgets ought to be run like family budgets, Del. Guy Guzzone, a Democrat who is taking over as chairman of the county's House delegation, said that's just what using transportation money to plug budget holes represents. "Should we take money out of a Christmas fund to pay for our son's college? Yes. These are hard times," he said.
Del. Frank Turner, another Democrat who serves on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, said, "Things are not free. You get what you pay for." The gas tax hasn't been raised in nearly 20 years, he pointed out. "That's a long time not to have any [new] money going into the Transportation Trust Fund," he said, suggesting that if it is increased it should be pegged to inflation to automatically trigger future increases.
Kittleman jumped on that, arguing that raising a tax just because it hasn't been raised for years "is the worst reason to do that."
Democratic Del. James E. Malone also attended but left early to get to the funeral for former Gov. William Donald Schaefer. Not only was Schaefer a family and personal friend, Malone said, but the former Baltimore mayor and state comptroller had signed a letter endorsing Malone for re-election last year that was circulated throughout the sprawling Charlestown retirement community in Catonsville in Malone's district, where Schaefer lived.
"He signed that. He did that for me," the grateful delegate said, adding that he came in first in that precinct.