Is Comptroller Peter Franchot grandstanding with his plan for a high-powered commission to find new state spending cuts?
Yes. Gov. Martin O'Malley and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller would oppose world peace if they thought it was Franchot's idea. They certainly won't go along with a budget group.
But does that make it a dumb thought - a bipartisan committee to undertake a "critical review of state revenues and spending"?
No. Government budgets build up like the Appalachians in the Paleozoic Era - a centimeter at a time and thousands of feet high.
Every now and then it's good to step back and see what isn't necessary. What better time to do that than during the worst budget crunch in more than a decade? Especially when last year's tax increases have Maryland falling again in state rankings on tax competitiveness and business climate?
Maybe I'm naive. But it's refreshing when a liberal like Franchot calls for ideas on fiscal responsibility from business and Republicans.
"I think it's entirely appropriate to ask the state to do what families are doing in Maryland and what the private sector is doing, which is a lot of belt-tightening," he said in an interview. "The question is, do you do it in an ad hoc, piecemeal fashion without any analysis? Or do you do it in a thorough, inclusive, comprehensive fashion that's transparent?"
OK, so budget cutting so far has hardly been without analysis. Thanks to gaps that could be foreseen far in advance, O'Malley and the General Assembly have been up to their necks in budget stuff almost since he took office.
Last week the Board of Public Works, on which Franchot and O'Malley sit along with Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, approved $350 million more in cuts.
"This administration is examining spending on a day-to-day basis," said O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese. "It's one thing to talk" about budget cuts, he said. "It's quite another to do them."
Warren Deschenaux, chief budget analyst for the General Assembly, sniffs at the idea of a blue-ribbon panel, which he says would take too long to get results and would be subject to partisan squabbles.
"I've seen these commissions come and go," he said. "That's simply a way of avoiding doing what's necessary."
It's true that the 1993 Butta Commission and the 2003 Mandel Commission didn't deliver much. But to say we should always leave Maryland's budget to a few government professionals is to deny the possibilities of democracy and opportunities to make the state competitive.
Thanks largely to last fall's sales-tax increase and income-tax changes, Maryland fell from the middle of the pack in the Tax Foundation's most recent tax-competitiveness study - 24th in the country - to near the bottom, at 45th.
And, says the foundation, "Maryland now has by far the worst personal income tax in the country, with a significantly lower score than second-place California."
Take these reports with a chaser of skepticism. It is difficult to compare states that often have very different tax structures.
More importantly, measuring taxes is meaningless unless you know what you're getting. For example, Maryland wisely devotes more money to education than many other states. O'Malley knows education spending is an investment in the future, which is why he had resisted education cuts.
Still, Maryland now ranks well below economic competitors such as Pennsylvania and Virginia.
A truly bipartisan commission would not only add budgeting credibility but identify efficiencies that could lead to tax cuts and renewed competitiveness when the economy revives, as it surely will.
Yes, like everybody else I assume the airing of Franchot's idea is part of his campaign to eventually be governor. But that shouldn't keep us from paying attention.
WORST BUSINESS TAXES
* New Jersey
* New York
* Rhode Island
Source: The Tax Foundation