In a perfect world, the no-new-taxes budget put forward by the Republican minority in the General Assembly would be a viable option. But the reality of American life in the 1990s cannot be ignored. The GOP plan seeks to do the impossible.
Republican delegates want to hold Maryland's spending to last year's level. That's a sound theoretical notion. It doesn't work in practice, though. The state's electric and heating bills, for instance, go up every year -- just like they do in the homes of most Marylanders. The higher bills must be paid. Many expenses are required by federal law or by the courts; there's nothing legislators in Annapolis can do to make these extra costs disappear.
So in many respects, Democratic legislators were correct when they termed the Republican budget alternative a "fairy tale." Freezing government spending at current levels can't realistically happen when prison and welfare populations are booming. Democrats are also accurate when they claim the GOP document is motivated primarily by politics. Republicans sense voter dismay with the Democrats' handling of the state fiscal crisis. They are positioning the minority party for the 1994 elections, when Maryland's anti-incumbent mood could turn into a pro-Republican landslide.
The Republican plan has an anti-education and anti-welfare emphasis. Planned increases for colleges and public schools would be eliminated; scholarship grants would turn into loans. Cuts in state welfare and Medicaid programs would be heavy. And while the law-and-order Republicans want to increase local police aid by $2.6 million, other public safety funds would be chopped so severely the state would be forced to fire nearly 450 prison guards and release 600 prisoners.
Still, this alternative proposal serves as a useful prod to Gov. William Donald Schaefer and the heavily Democratic Assembly. The GOP's call to end government non-essential extras is on target. The stress on deep budget cuts, rather than hefty new taxes, puts pressure on Assembly Democrats to increase their own budget-slashing efforts.
A combination of tough budget cuts and revenue increases is the best way out of Maryland's deep fiscal hole. Swinging to either extreme holds enormous dangers. The Republican budget plan is one fairy tale that may not have a happy ending.