Maybe Maryland budget is fat-free after all

THE BALTIMORE SUN

UNDER THE Democrats, fiscal leaders in Annapolis would have found a way to paper over Maryland's budget deficit. They would have neutralized, obscured and temporized about the built-in imbalance between spending and income. They would have pushed the problem into the future, trusting in the economy or in a temporary tax on the wealthy. Something.

Or maybe not. When they pushed past wiser heads in their party to pass a $1.3 billion increase in annual education spending -- without knowing how they'd pay for it -- something fundamental may have shifted. It was a fiscal bridge too far. They're paying for it now.

At the very least, that wretched excess disarmed them in their struggle with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who wants to pay the piper. Give him this: He's actually looked at spending reductions. He's taken a run at getting it under control.

What he's found, though, is this: Spending was under control. The cost of government in Maryland, one of the richest states in the nation, has been reasonable -- in the middle or toward the lower end of the pack of states.

Proof of that can be found in a closer look at Mr. Ehrlich's recent effort to drive the deficit beast into the corral. The governor's $208 million budget-cutting mouse is a far cry from the lion he had forecast when he impounded $650 million already allocated by the General Assembly this year.

An inescapable conclusion: Unless you take Lizzie Borden whacks at the budget, there's precious little flexibility. About 80 percent of the state's $9.8 billion general fund budget goes for public education, public safety and health. After that, you're looking at aid to public higher education, social services such as drug abuse treatment and aid to local governments. So, unless you want to radically redefine government's role, you can't make deep cuts. Mr. Ehrlich stopped short of the change he had promised.

"He huffed and he puffed and he wimped out," said one of the Assembly's number crunchers. "We're still a sales tax increase and slot machines away from a solution."

More fundamentally, we're a plan away from solving the problem. There's no step-by-step, publicly discussed plan for dealing with the annual $1 billion shortfall.

Because the governor declines to entertain any thought of new or increased taxes and because approval of slot machines remains in doubt, he cannot address the totality of the problem. Mr. Ehrlich says he will not shortchange the Thornton Commission's $1.3-billion K-12 aid-to-education plan. He's going to support it for the same reason it was passed by the Assembly: You can't be stingy with public education and expect to get elected or re-elected.

Politics has left us few good options. Voters have been coached to believe that government is riddled with waste, fraud and abuse. But where is it? Surely Republicans are not leaving it in place.

Mr. Ehrlich's $208 million exercise in cutting should prove how inaccurate and damaging the drumbeat of alleged abuse has become. A closer look at his cuts shows what heroic and creative exploits will be needed to keep the system operating on short rations without new revenue from some quarter.

Let's take one department, Health and Mental Hygiene.

To make its contribution to the $208 million total, this department will not expand alcoholism treatment facilities in Montgomery County or Baltimore; it will not add 500 elderly to a program of in-community services aimed at keeping them out of institutions; it will cut $600,000 in drug treatment funds for Baltimore; it will delete funds for dead bird pickup in the anti-West Nile virus campaign; it will cut hospital and nursing home reimbursement rates by 1 percent; and it will ask the federal government to cover a range of services now paid for by the state. It will cut its Medicaid spending overall by $45 million, thereby losing $45 million in federal matching funds.

So all this makes the future clear: Maryland needs at least one new or enhanced revenue source. "The figures," says the green eyeshade man in Annapolis, "are ineluctable." They aren't going to change, in other words, absent an economic boom no one forecasts or the sort of deep cutting no one should want.

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

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