Budget watershed


In the thick of Maryland's budget conundrum comes a simple statement of common sense from the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee: We don't have the time to look at the trees now, Buzz Ryan told colleagues, we have to look at the forest. Indeed, lawmakers' attempts to hit a moving budget target have put the process behind schedule. But all the bantering and horse-trading over budget cuts, furloughs and layoffs misses the larger point: What kind of state do Marylanders want to live in?

Certainly it is possible for lawmakers to cut programs, transfer money from one pot to another and lay people off to balance the books. But the consequence would be trimming far beyond the fat into the meat of Maryland's social and economic programs. Governor Schaefer's on-again, off-again proposals for budget nTC cuts have provided a snapshot of the people who depend on state programs -- not only the poor, the sick and the elderly, but also the business community, which is invigorated by now-vulnerable economic development programs.

The state's reputation as a tax hell precludes important debate on this issue because it focuses on how much Marylanders pay to the exclusion of what they get in return. But the projected $88 million shortfall this year and the $115 million gap for next year ought to change that. Maryland must decide whether it is willing to pay the price to continue to fund services, programs and infrastructure at their current level. That price certainly will not be the $800 million recommended by the Linowes Commission, but more likely an array of smaller tax increases -- a gas tax hike, an expansion and possibly an increase in the state sales tax, maybe a snack tax and even a one-time measure like an income tax surcharge or piggy-back tax increase. It's hard for politicians to say the T-word. But with revenue projections darkening and a team of bond-rating analysts arriving Thursday to review the soundness of Maryland's fiscal planning, a consensus between the governor and legislators on new taxes is needed now more than ever.

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