HERE'S THE best that can be said of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s proposed state budget: It could have been worse. For months, it looked like it might. Apparently, improved tax revenues, political pressure and perhaps even common sense had an impact on the administration. But does this budget solve Maryland's structural deficit - the growing gap between what the state raises in tax revenue and what it's committed to spend in future years? It most assuredly does not.
Even Mr. Ehrlich's supporters are bound to be disappointed - if only because the budget is so filled with one-time fixes. Money is moved around (shortchanging important programs to cover expenses elsewhere), and less tax revenue is shared with local government. Yet Mr. Ehrlich has chosen to put $230 million more than required into the state's rainy day fund for unexpected future expenses. It's possible these unexpected future expenses include persuading legislators to pass a slots bill this session. Anybody want a new school in your district? Or maybe for election-year goodies in 2006.
But what's most galling - and we believe most counterproductive to Mr. Ehrlich - is how little candor he could muster when his budget was unveiled Wednesday. It's one thing to regard the General Assembly with the same respect wanton boys give flies, but why must voters be treated as idiots? Mr. Ehrlich brags that his budget provides record funding for education and local aid. But he's counting the same money twice - once as Thornton aid to education and again as local aid. Nor does he disclose that the administration hasn't fully funded the Thornton plan, and it's fallen $100 million short of the minimum recommended for school construction. And he has actually cut $30 million in local aid to 11 counties.
This isn't mere partisanship on the governor's part. It's a missed opportunity to talk with voters about the real tradeoffs a responsible budget requires, and to call for reasonable sacrifice in the form of either fewer services or higher taxes. It appears Mr. Ehrlich didn't want that. He wanted (and got) the overnight headline "No new taxes." Never mind that the last three governors could make the same claim - or that the Ehrlich budget will once again hit taxpayers with higher fees. Forget complexities. Forget history. In a departure from past administrations, Mr. Ehrlich didn't share details of his budget with lawmakers in advance. That stuff will eventually come out as analysts pore over his proposal line by line. Mr. Ehrlich is counting on voters to pay those details no mind.
Perhaps the governor is simply embarrassed. His proposal would stick state employees and retirees with $100 million or more in higher health insurance costs. Maryland private colleges are going to receive $10 million less in state aid, a potentially devastating cut to small schools. A program that helps low-income seniors afford prescriptions will be axed. Layoffs are expected. The state's land preservation fund, Program Open Space, is badly shortchanged - again. And overall, the budget's too big, perhaps $300 million or more over spending affordability limits (meaning it has grown faster than personal income). Why were these choices made? We couldn't say. The governor declined to answer questions during his budget's public debut. He told reporters he was needed elsewhere. And that was that.