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Promises, promises

ElectionsPreschools and Early LearningSchoolsAnthony G. BrownBudgets and Budgeting

When Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown stood before a room full of community development activists on Monday, he ticked off a list of promises of what he would do if he's elected governor this fall, as did the candidates who appeared before and after him. But he included this challenge: Go to my website, read my position papers, and don't stop until you get to the bottom. There, he said, you can find detailed estimates of how much all of his promises cost and how he would pay for them.

Give him credit for the first part — almost all of his position papers (and there are a lot of them) include a chart at the end itemizing the estimated costs of every proposal he makes by year for the next three years. In terms of consistency and transparency in detailing the price of his promises, Mr. Brown is clearly tops among those vying to succeed Gov. Martin O'Malley. But as far as the second part of his boast — how to pay for things — he falls into the same fiscal fantasyland as most, if not all, of his competitors.

In all, Mr. Brown has proposed (so far) about $250 million in new annual spending, but he has detailed no specific spending cuts or new revenues that could be quantified in any meaningful way. He says, for example, that he would pay for his $153.6 million pre-K expansion through new gambling revenue, but that has already been baked into the state's budget estimates. Mr. Brown acknowledges this but doesn't say what part of the existing education budget he would cut as a result. He would pay for his $32 million jobs plan with the increased economic activity spurred by the Purple and Red lines, neither of which has broken ground. His initiatives to support women come from increased economic activity assumed to be caused by the recent minimum wage increase, and so on.

The trouble with these sorts of proposed funding sources is underscored by the projected budget impact of decriminalizing marijuana. Mr. Brown and both of his Democratic competitors — Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler and Del. Heather Mizeur — all assume that this year's decision to eliminate criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of the drug will be a windfall for the state. But how much? Mr. Brown pegs it at $27 million a year, Mr. Gansler at $112.5 million a year and Ms. Mizeur at $282 million.

Ms. Mizeur has offered, by far, the most proposals for new spending — those contained in her policy papers thus far total more than $500 million a year when fully phased in. In some instances, she has been specific about how she would pay for things; her proposed income tax cuts, for example, are offset by a new millionaires tax, and cuts in taxes for small businesses are covered by closing a corporate tax loophole. She says she would pay for her expansion of pre-K — the most comprehensive plan any candidate has proposed — through the legalization and taxation of marijuana. But she says that would generate $157.5 million a year, well short of the $280 million cost of that program when it's fully phased in. She says the costs would be compensated for because high quality pre-K would reduce the need for special educaiton services in elementary school. She has not yet identified the means to cover at least $168 million worth of other new programs she has proposed.

Mr. Gansler, unique among the Democrats, has offered more specific suggestions on where he would find savings in the budget than he has promised new initiatives. He has proposed less than $130 million in new spending, and has generally specified how they would be financed — for example, capping horse racing purse subsidies fund pre-K. Meanwhile, he issued a position paper detailing steps he would take that he says could save the state $1.5 billion — though projections for how much Maryland could save through procurement reform or efficiency reviews, for example, are educated guesses at best.

Among the Republican candidates, businessman Larry Hogan stands out for plausibility. He says tax cuts would have to come after Maryland has achieved spending reductions, and he points to a stack of unaddressed recommendations from state audits as a place to start finding them. He also stands out for vagueness. Unique among the major candidates of either party, his website includes no detailed policy proposals whatsoever.

There may well be some truth to the Republicans' contention that tax cuts will at least partially pay for themselves through increased economic activity and to Democrats' contention that investments in better services — expanded pre-K, for example — will result in lower costs for social services and incarceration. But those arguments fall short in the real world of state budgeting in two respects. First, any such savings or increased economic growth would be difficult, if not impossible, to track, and second, eventual savings or higher revenues don't help balance a budget in the here and now. That's what the state constitution requires the governor to do, and those competing for the job owe us a realistic assessment of how they will accomplish it.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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