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Nomads in the State House


Nearly one-third through this year's 90-day General Assembly session, state legislators have yet to attack Maryland's most severe fiscal crisis in decades. They appear to be walking in circles, like nomads wandering in the desert.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer has done his part to point lawmakers in the right direction. In his State of the State message, he outlined a tax-and-spending-cut approach to get the state through these tough times. He followed this up last week with a $12.5 billion budget that shrinks non-essential operations while financing only the basics. He also presented an optional "doomsday" proposal that would emasculate state government through $1.2 billion in cuts but would avoid raising taxes.

Yet lawmakers appear disoriented. They can't -- or don't want to -- find their way out of this fiscal desert. Though Maryland's fiscal crunch has been devastating state government for 16 months, Assembly leaders still don't have the foggiest notion how to resolve this problem.

Some legislators, like Senate budget chairman Laurence Levitan, want to greatly increase taxes in order to avoid harming education and the needy. Others, like House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell, want to make basic cuts in state services so the budget-balancing requires only a modest tax increase. Republicans, meanwhile, have engaged in political grandstanding that amounts to another version of the governor's "doomsday" scenario.

There is no consensus -- or anything close to a consensus -- brewing. The House and Senate are poles apart. Democrats and Republicans are light-years apart. City and county legislators aren't even on the same wave length. In fact, the only thing lawmakers agree on these days is that they can't agree on any aspect of this fiscal crisis.

Legislative leaders spent all summer and fall studying Maryland's revenue shortfall and the state's spending programs. Thick reports were prepared on options for spending cuts and tax changes. Nothing has come of all this work.

Legislative leaders also pledged to resolve quickly the state's budget woes this session to avoid risking a downgrade of Maryland's much-coveted triple-A bond rating. Lawmakers said they would have a solution within a month.

That month is almost up, and no solution is in sight.

State legislators are endangering Maryland's future by their failure to confront the state's budget problems directly. They have consistently procrastinated on the question of choosing between higher taxes and painful cuts to programs dear to constituents. Yet Maryland must balance its budget. The state's constitution requires it. Senators and delegates will have to roll up their sleeves during the rest of the General Assembly session if they are to meet that legal mandate. Their efforts so far have been shamefully inadequate.

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