The state's bill

March 01, 2012

Make no mistake about it: there is an element of electioneering on the part of Harford County Executive David R. Craig's high-profile opposition to a plan by Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley to shift part of the cost of teacher pensions from the state government to the various county governments.

Craig, after all, is about as formidable a candidate for the governor's office as Maryland's Republican Party will be able to enlist and he's made it clear he has the ambition to seek the state's top elected office.

As evidenced by the number of similar county government opposition events organized this week, however, it is clear there's more to the issue than just political posturing.

The harsh reality of the situation is Maryland's finances are in a sad state, thanks to several years of political posturing on the part of folks in both major political parties, and the current governor, who is ineligible to run for another term, like Craig, has his eyes on higher office. It appears O'Malley is rather enthusiastically taking on the dirty work of jacking up taxes so a presumed Democratic successor won't be faced with the task.

From a certain twisted perspective, this is noble compared to what the previous two governors did. Democrat Parris N. Glendening ended his second term with a budget that was precariously balanced and in such a sorry state that the next governor presumably would be faced with the prospect of cutting programs or raising taxes. Enter the next governor, Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who regarded opening the state to slot machine gambling as the solution to what was becoming known as Maryland's structural deficit (which is nothing more than a cheap euphemism for being too lazy, or too incompetent, to balance the budget). But before the first half year of his term was over, Ehrlich raised taxes.

Long on the rhetoric of his party, Ehrlich was short on making cuts and eventually found himself trying to convince voters that government fees, which Ehrlich raised the way a drunken sailor might hoist a few pints, aren't the same as taxes. He left office after a single term, not having managed to get a slots bill through the legislature and, by the way, doing almost nothing to cut state spending.

Slot machine gambling, it turns out, wasn't much of a silver bullet against the werewolf of poorly managed government spending on the part of the state. And poorly managed spending is the problem: the state's so-called billion dollar structural deficit needs to be seen from the perspective of the state's $35 billion to $36 billion total budget. From this perspective, a billion dollars can be seen as a few percent.

Which brings us back to the issue of the governor trying to make the counties pay for the cost of teacher pensions as a way to balance the state budget without making cuts. This is a proposal that has bad idea written all over it. The state has full control over teacher pensions, so if the state shifts the cost to the counties, which have no control, there will be no incentive for the state to act responsibly in administering teacher pensions.

Moreover, in the case of Harford County, it rewards a local government that has managed to live within its means without raising taxes or substantially cutting services, all while avoiding painful layoffs.

Craig's latest press conference on the subject may have had all the trappings of a campaign event in an expected march toward Annapolis, but the substance of what was being said was spot on.

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