That Maryland still has a massive budget deficit comes as no surprise. From the moment the legislature grudgingly approved a budget in April, it was hopelessly out of balance. To be sure, Gov. William Donald Schaefer's comments over the weekend to the Maryland Association of Counties of a potential $500 million shortfall paints a "worst-case" scenario. But given the inaccuracies of past fiscal predictions, his pessimistic revenue outlook certainly seems prudent.
What was missing from Mr. Schaefer's speech was a game plan for tackling the state's latest budget shortfall. The prolonged recession is hitting Maryland hard, and earlier estimates of a rebound this fiscal year now appear inaccurate. That accounts for much of the $500 million of red ink mentioned by the governor to MACO leaders.
As we noted in these columns a month ago, Maryland's fiscal woes should be addressed by the governor and legislature as rapidly as possible. The sooner budget cuts are made, the easier it will be to erase the deficit. Conversely, if House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell and other legislative skeptics refuse to hold a special session, it will be far more painful to close a budget gap of this magnitude when the legislature meets again in January. By then, there will be less than six months remaining in the fiscal year.
County officials are rightly demanding an early resolution. If there is to be a big cut in local aid, they want it to happen quickly, so they have time to adjust local budgets. That's only fair. The governor and lawmakers should try to accommodate their wishes.
Mr. Schaefer has the power to make some budget cuts unilaterally. He should use that authority to embark on a major downsizing of state programs in the next few weeks. He should also implement recommendations of the Butta commission on efficiency in government as part of his cost-saving efforts. He cannot wait for legislators to agree on an economizing package: House and Senate leaders don't see eye to eye on budgetary matters and neither chamber seems eager to take the lead in crafting a deficit plan.
This latest round of budget reductions will be the most painful yet. All the easy cuts have been made. Even with $500 million in DTC new taxes this spring, there's still a need to shrink government spending dramatically. We trust Mr. Schaefer to do so in a way that is both sensible and sensitive to Marylanders in need.