With the drastic budget cuts he announced yesterday, Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke was trying to accomplish two ends: reduce spending at City Hall and send a message to the State House that the city is desperate and must have more help.
In listing the reductions -- layoffs, a shorter school year, shuttered libraries and firehouses -- Mr. Schmoke urged Baltimoreans to direct any protests to their state legislators. It was the cut in state revenue to the city, he said, that forced him to slash spending.
"My hope is that parents will be upset but also that they will understand that it's not the mayor" who caused the cutbacks, Mr. Schmoke said.
"It's almost like playing chicken," said Delegate Howard P. Rawlings, D-Baltimore, a Schmoke partisan.
"Is it all politics?" asked state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, D-Baltimore, vice chairwoman of the Budget and Taxation Committee. "I wish. I wish it were that simple. The cupboard is truly empty. While the shock effect of this is useful, if he didn't have to do this he wouldn't do it."
"It's not a bluff," Mr. Rawlings said. "It's a reflection of the very difficult fiscal situation that we're in."
Mr. Schmoke's other options are even more unpleasant, perhaps laying off teachers, Mr. Rawlings said. By proposing a shorter school year, Mr. Schmoke is hoping that parents will bring such pressure on the State House that legislators will find new revenues for the city.
The State Board of Education probably will not allow the mayor to close the schools for five days, Mr. Rawlings said. But even if the bid were approved, Mr. Schmoke would not have to actually close schools until the spring -- by which time the legislature may have found a way to direct more money to the city.
In its broad scope, Mr. Schmoke's budget-reduction plan resembles Gov. William Donald Schaefer's proposal last month to reduce state spending by laying off state troopers and ending programs for the poor.
Some observers charged the governor with targeting the cuts for areas where they'd have the biggest emotional impact in an effort to orchestrate a public outcry and force the legislature to raise taxes and cre
ate new revenues.
"I think he's playing the same hand of poker that the governor's playing with some of his budget decisions," Mr. Rawlings said yesterday of Mr. Schmoke. "He's astute."
Indeed, Governor Schaefer was sympathetic yesterday.
"Mayor Schmoke did what he had to do," the governor said. "No matter what he chooses, it's going to be wrong. No matter what I choose, I'm going to be wrong. He can't win. The governor can't win. No matter what he touches, it should have been something else."
As for urging city residents to call legislators, he said they should call only if they can propose an alternative.
But House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, was more critical of the mayor's comments, saying it sounded as if Mr. Schmoke were trying to rile the public.
"If you're a leader of any community -- state, local, federal -- you have to pick your priorities," he said. "And if you think there's a bigger priority than schools, then that's your priority. But it seems to me he's trying to cause a panic and not choosing priorities. What he's telling me in that statement is that there are other things he could have done, but to get everybody's attention he is going to close schools That's not fair."
The speaker noted that Prince George's County announced this week plans to close schools for three days in January, and said, "It looks to me like a contrived thing at this point. They all get together and close schools for a week and then tell us to show 'leadership.' "
To address the state's broader budget problems, Mr. Mitchell, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's, and other lawmakers met with the governor yesterday morning to offer to work with him on a spending plan.