Tiptoeing past the budget graveyard


WHAT THE candidates for governor won't tell you: A tax increase is coming.

Even if a smaller-government, tax-averse Republican wins the race for governor this year, a tax increase will be difficult to avoid.

Privately - very privately - Democrats will say we can't stay happily afloat without more revenue.

Yes, some Democrats hope their party will reassert its fundamental identity and push programs that could define the state as truly progressive. But new revenue is needed to meet basic education, transportation and health-care costs. Then there are the things you'd like to do: Prescription drug programs cost money. Including more poor and working poor in medical insurance programs is expensive. Educating children, saving the bay, fighting crime ... don't come free.

Critics of the current Democratic administration say government services are provided in Maryland now on the cheap. We're No. 1 in the nation in per capita income but at or below the middle in how much we spend for services.

Both candidates hope economic recovery will bail us out. Dream on. It couldn't have happened in the best of times, analysts say. And now Wall Street's jamboree of corruption is suffocating the hoped-for recovery.

So, while the candidates tiptoe through the minefield of cuts and/or taxes, a committee of astute numbers men and women will begin to identify needs and to point toward ways of meeting them. They were set to this necessary - and politically perilous - task by House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., one of the Assembly's forward-thinking members. Inherent in the process: We're going to need a tax increase.

Should the state sales tax be raised? Should it be broadened to cover more goods and services? Should the gas tax be increased?

Are these questions the third rail of Maryland politics? Yes. So, you won't find out what the green-eye-shaders think until after the current campaigns for governor and General Assembly end.

Which doesn't mean the candidates get a pass. What sort of Maryland will we have under the current frontrunners: Congressman Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the Republican, and Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the Democrat?

So far, neither has offered a satisfactory program for filling the budget gaps and providing for the needs of the state during their tenure.

Mr. Ehrlich favors slot machines, which could provide $400 million per year. But they probably can't get on line in time to help for a year or two at best. How else would he meet our needs? He'll be urged to get into what one Republican strategist calls a sucker game: If you're going to balance the budget through cuts, what specifically will you cut? If you answer the questions, you lose votes.

Ms. Townsend opposes slots. She rests her effort on a program freeze, leaving out public safety and education. And on cutting waste. What waste would she be talking about? How much of it is there? Enough to balance the budget? She and Gov. Parris N. Glendening have been in office for eight years. There's waste? That buzzing you hear? The rail.

Many Marylanders will demand better answers from the two candidates who say they can manage a $22 billion corporation called the State of Maryland.

Maryland's constitution requires a balanced budget. Maryland's thought of as a liberal Democratic state, but conservative-thinking Republicans and Democrats have protected it from the budget difficulties faced by many other states. Legislators love their spending affordability formula - it saves them from themselves.

But not entirely.

Last year, having promised five years of income tax relief, the General Assembly went ahead with the fifth year of a five-year income tax cut despite a budget squeeze. Gov. Parris N. Glendening, noticing that things were tight, wanted to delay the fifth year, but the political pragmatists didn't trust people to understand why that pause was necessary. There's that buzzing again.

Wise heads fretted in silence while the herd mentality - slammed up to warp speed in an election year - sent the Assembly toward the budgetary cliff. With breathtaking equanimity, senators and delegates voted for a $1.3 billion education spending program they admitted they couldn't pay for. A fig leaf - in the form of a trigger - was inserted in the law they passed: If the money isn't there, the aid wouldn't be there.

Let's hope the candidates come up with prudent plans - or we'll be up against the whole fiscal gun, not just the trigger.

C. Fraser Smith is an editorial writer for The Sun. His column appears Sundays.

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