Assembly to tackle a gridiron full of tests


The opening of the 2002 session of the Maryland General Assembly today offers an important opportunity for Gov. Parris N. Glendening and the state's 188 legislators to reclaim "disciplined" as an accurate description of what they do.

They have little choice but to seize that chance.

With a tight economy and a nonexistent surplus this year, there won't be room for the errors produced by less-than-honest budgeting. There's less cushion, so poor judgments could position the state for a hard and damaging fall.

Having spent in excess of affordability guidelines in the 2001 budget, having allowed Medicaid to make a mockery of the state's constitutional balanced budget requirement, Mr. Glendening now finds himself paring down a deficit pegged at more than $1 billion.

Mr. Glendening and some legislative leaders insist everything will work out for the best because Maryland has a strong underlying economy. But that's wishful thinking this year.

The truth is that if things do work out well, it will be because the assembly and the chief executive have participated in a complicated and politically difficult rebalancing of resources and needs. They will have done their jobs, rather than shirked responsibility.

Choices must be made on several fronts:

Last year, Maryland calculated its Medicaid budget on unrealistic forecasts of both eligible recipients and anticipated new efficiencies. Savings did not materialize, and many more people applied for benefits.

More honesty in budgeting this year will be imperative.

Mr. Glendening must decide whether he will fund the first year of his Thornton Commission's recommended infusion of funds to balance classroom spending. The commission's recommendations total a costly $130 million, but there's a moral cost to ignoring the profound gap between rich and poor in this state's schools.

The governor may have to decide whether to use money committed to construction projects to fund the education recommendations, or plug deficit holes, or pay Medicaid's $173 million past-due bill.

Among the election-year questions posed for this governor and this assembly in the last year of their terms is whether to delay the fifth year of the income tax cut. That action would produce enough money to pay for the first year of the Thornton Commission. We say delay the cut. Fund Thornton. But certainly, it will take uncommon political leadership to get such a dicey proposal through the assembly.

Good, responsible and election-worthy legislators can defend that action. It's called leadership.

Marylanders at large have a responsibility, too. If they want to cover the medical care of poor kids -- and they should -- if they want to equalize education spending -- and they must -- they have to be willing to stomach the costs.

That means giving legislators the political will to sacrifice other needs in favor of the medical spending. It means making tough trade-offs politically palatable.

There won't be another way out this session. The constitution does not offer a free lunch when it comes to budgets, and political leaders should stop suggesting otherwise.

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