Those budget blues


It was a familiar refrain the Maryland Association of Counties heard from Gov. William Donald Schaefer this past weekend. This time, his budget-time blues amount to $500 million. It is a sad song, but local officials have heard it sung all too frequently in the past few years.

What this means for the 24 subdivisions is more deep cuts in local aid. Hardest hit could be local schools and community colleges, which now receive over $2 billion from the state. Much of the $200 million in new aid won this past spring could be lost. Also likely to receive stiff cuts are local health programs and police assistance.

Most of these will be penny-wise, pound foolish reductions. If anything, Maryland needs to devote more of its government resources to public education, health and public safety. But the governor, state legislators and local officials have yet to sit down together to come up with a more sensible way to balance the budget. In fact, the needs of local governments are often ignored when Annapolis makes its cuts.

If the governor acts quickly to impose reductions on state agencies, he could minimize the damage. That's why it is important for Mr. Schaefer to act unilaterally in the next few weeks to reduce the size of government. The recommendations of the Butta commission on making Annapolis more efficient could prove invaluable.

But Mr. Schaefer cannot erase the entire half-billion-dollar deficit by himself. He will need legislative approval to cut local aid and state programs by more than 25 percent. And lawmakers are sure to resist cuts to their pet programs. In fact, House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell doesn't even want to hold a special session to sanction such cuts. He'd rather wait in hopes the state's economic picture will improve.

That kind of wishful thinking could harm local governments. By waiting to act till next January at the earliest, Mr. Mitchell will force county officials to make Draconian cuts in their own budgets halfway through the fiscal year to make their books balance. He will also force far deeper and more painful cuts in state programs.

There is a better way. Mr. Mitchell should agree to a brief special legislative session right after the Nov. 3 election to approve an agreed-upon list of budget cuts. In the meantime, he should work closely with the governor on taking immediate steps to trim costs.

This is the third year of painful budget cuts for Maryland's governments. All the easy reductions have been made. But the state still is spending far more than its income allows. Such overspending must come to an end. The next round of adjustments, especially for the city and counties, could prove especially painful.

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