A shortage of state tax revenue weighs heavily on the minds of elected officials these days, and a lunchtime crowd at a Columbia interfaith center got a preview of the General Assembly's coming struggle over the issue.
Maryland is expecting revenue to fall $1.5 billion short of expenses next year if nothing is done, and five Howard County legislators expressed their views to worried members of the Association of Community Services, a group of social service agency leaders who gathered last week at the Meeting House in Oakland Mills.
State Sen. James N. Robey brought up a possible point of conflict with county government officials.
How can local leaders complain about potential state budget cuts to counties when they are providing generous pay increases to county workers?
"The state for years didn't give increases," Robey said, while "recently what I would consider exorbitant raises" have been handed out by county officials.
He insisted later that he was not talking about any particular official, but Howard County Executive Ken Ulman agreed this year to give county firefighters a 6 percent pay raise for each of the next four years and gave county police officers 5 percent raises for each of the next two years.
Robey said he feels slot machines are "almost a certainty," although Dels. Elizabeth Bobo and Gail H. Bates said they oppose slots.
Del. Guy Guzzone, Del. Frank S. Turner, Robey and Bobo -- all Democrats -- and Bates, a Republican, said they expect a tax increase, though Bates favors spending cuts.
Republicans compiled a list of cuts to proposed spending increases in this year's General Assembly session, Bates said, but it was rejected by the leadership of the House of Delegates. That was her greatest disappointment, she said.
"The attitude was 'Let's spend all the cash we have -- the $1 billion surplus -- and deal with the shortfall next year.'"
Turner pointed out that the problem is largely the result of the General Assembly's decision in 2002 to cut state income taxes 10 percent while approving the Thornton Commission educational program without any money to pay for it.
"That wasn't the right thing to do," he said, adding that tax increases now seem inevitable.
Guzzone gave Bates credit for trying to cut spending this year. He and Bobo said they see the state income tax as the most likely source of new revenue for next year because it is the most progressive. Bobo wants a restructuring of the rates to capture more money from wealthier taxpayers.
"Increasing the sales tax hurts people with less ability to pay," she said, though Turner said raising the 5 percent sales tax to 6 percent would bring in about $750 million.
Guzzone said that whatever is done to raise revenue should be designed to solve the problem for years to come. He noted that Robey, as Howard County executive, took such action in 2003, when he pushed through a large county income tax increase.
But he and others also talked about the needs that exist, particularly among the people the Association of Community Services' member agencies serve.
About 16,000 developmentally disabled people are waiting for services in Maryland, Guzzone said, including 2,500 on a "crisis waiting list."
"We've got a long way to go to handle issues on people we say need the help the most," he said.
More budget time
The five newly elected County Council members did plenty of talking while reviewing County Executive Ken Ulman's first budget last month, but it apparently wasn't enough.
They met for another 80-minute discussion -- this time about how and whether to change the review process next year -- before last week's monthly public hearing.
This group of council members is questioning past practices, rather than accepting them as tradition. So, for example, the annual Saturday public hearing on the school budget could be shifted to a weekday.
The Saturday practice began years ago when then-school Superintendent Michael E. Hickey used to rally his troops for a big showing at council budget hearings, so a separate day was set aside to accommodate them. In recent years, there has been less controversy, and fewer people want to give up a Saturday in early May -- including council members.
"For two years, I had to cut class to make it here on a Saturday," said Council Chairman Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat.
Councilwoman Jen Terrasa, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, said more sessions of shorter duration might be helpful.
"Not more than four hours. Bringing in a new item after five, six or seven hours ... " she said as other members laughed in sympathy.
Other topics included members' frustration over simple things -- such as trying to use three sets of budget books when each is organized differently or allowing people earlier chances to sign up for hearings using telephones or computers. The council also might like to review the capital budget with the Planning Board, several members said.
Those ideas may require more meetings and hearings next spring, with some starting at different times than county residents have become used to.
But often during the discussion, members came back to one overriding truth, verbalized by Councilman Greg Fox, a western county Republican.
"It was the executive's first year and our first year," he said.