Maryland lawmakers say that layoffs of government employees could become unavoidable unless cures are found for the state's money woes.
"I think layoffs are going to be a reality in the near future," Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's, said yesterday as the bad news of the state budget grew worse.
Legislators, warned by their fiscal experts that the $11.6 billion budget submitted last Friday by Gov. William Donald Schaefer is based on overly rosy revenue projections, could be forced to reduce the budget by as much as $135 million within the next few weeks.
And, if lawmakers spoil a plan by the governor to transfer another $77 million from the state's ailing transportation fund to strengthen a shaky general fund, they'll have that much more to cut.
In the face of massive cuts to an already haggard budget, lawmakers are left with a handful of unappealing options -- raising taxes, cutting services, eliminating programs and jobs or initiating a combination of all choices.
Lawmakers were successful earlier this winter when they persuaded Schaefer not to lay off about 1,200 workers as part of his cost-cutting efforts to balance the current budget. But, with money problems worsening, the possibility of layoffs has grown stronger.
Nearly two-thirds of the state budget is set aside for such mandated programs as health care, welfare and education. Because salaries for state employees make up about 26 percent -- or $3 billion -- of the budget, the ranks of workers are a prime candidate for the budget ax.
Miller said the legislature will have to work through a complex tangle of budget problems to avoid putting some of the 80,000 state jobholders out of work. Most workers already have been asked to shoulder longer workweeks and to accept a freeze in wages and incremental pay increases.
Although the governor's budget goes before the scrutiny of the House of Delegates first this year, lawmakers on both sides of the General Assembly are searching for ways to improve the fiscal outlook.
The Schaefer administration has proposed legislation based on the Linowes Commission tax plan that would raise about $800 million in taxes and fees. Yet the plan has met stiff opposition, particularly in the House.
Without the Linowes tax plan or a similar tool to raise large amounts of money, lawmakers will be hard put to manage the budget without severe cutbacks in programs or services, according to Del. Charles J. Ryan, D-Prince George's.
"I don't like the idea of putting people out on the bricks," said Ryan, who chairs the influential House Appropriations Committee.
Short of cutting jobs, Ryan said, the state can save money by freezing vacancies when they occur, institute a widespread furlough program and approve an array of tax increases and loophole closings on tax-free services and products.
One idea making the rounds in Annapolis is a one-time-only surcharge of 5 or 10 percent on individual state income taxes.
"If the bottom line is we're facing a shortfall," said Budget and Taxation Committee head Sen. Laurence Levitan, D-Montgomery Co., "either we'll have to raise taxes or cut positions."