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Editorial

Where is the concern for Maryland’s deficits? | COMMENTARY

At a small park west of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and West Pratt Street, homeless people have set up a tent encampment, even as state government reports a record budget surplus. File. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun).

The state of Maryland recently closed out the fiscal year with a $2 billion surplus. This produced all kinds of bipartisan self-congratulatory talk about fiscal discipline and good budgetary stewardship at the Sept. 14 Board of Public Works meeting with Republican Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford and Comptroller Peter Franchot, a Democrat, taking bows. Much of that money is already slated to go to what is known as the “Rainy Day Fund,” which is essentially a savings account for when state government faces unexpected expenses such as a natural disaster, an abrupt economic downtown or a serious drop in tax revenue. Thanks to the surplus, that fund will now have a staggering $1.66 billion balance, the largest ever, or roughly $275 for every person living in the state. And that leaves $1.1 billion entirely uncommitted, which might further enrich the Rainy Day Fund if the lame duck comptroller has his way. And perhaps the lame duck lieutenant governor, too, given his admonition that the next governor and state legislature should not go “hog-wild” on spending because of economic uncertainties ahead.

While we appreciate prudence as much as the next taxpayer (and retaining Maryland’s AAA bond rating, which is essential as it lowers future borrowing costs), there seems to be a troubling lack of interest in Maryland’s continuing deficits. These shortages don’t necessarily show up on state government balance sheets, but they are pretty obvious nonetheless. From the student learning deficit caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and loss of school days, to the failing public infrastructure in Baltimore and elsewhere, and the terrible costs posed by climate change to a coastal state directly in harm’s way, there ought to be a whole lot more attention paid to where state government is failing to meet its obligations and a lot less self-satisfied claims of surpluses.

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Let’s start with schools. Inflation and rising interest rates mean school construction dollars will not go as far as expected this year. Yet there are still buildings that lack proper heat, air conditioning and even potable water in some cases. And how about the learning loss? Roughly two-thirds of fifth and eighth graders failed to pass the science requirements of the Maryland Comprehensive Assessment Program last spring. Now that’s a deficit. Oh, and that’s not even mentioning that math standardized test scores have fallen even further. Where’s the plan to address those deficits on a statewide basis?

Meanwhile, the recent water scare in Baltimore, the threat of E. coli bacteria coming out of our kitchen faucets in certain neighborhoods, is just the latest sign of a flagrant deficit in opportunities. Some Marylanders have it great these days, but some are mired in neighborhoods where having to boil water is just the latest burden on top of crime, a lack of jobs or child care, substandard housing, homelessness, illegal drug sales and on and on. When is that deficit going to be the lead item on the BPW agenda? The pandemic has put a strain on the social safety net. Does leadership see that? Perhaps a visit to neighborhoods like Sandtown-Winchester might open some eyes.

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And finally, there’s that matter of climate change. Oh, it’s all very well to invest in electric vehicle recharging stations for the affluent, but there are a lot of communities, such as Turner Station, where climate-worsened flooding isn’t some theoretical concept, it’s already happening. As The Sun’s Scott Dance recently reported, they are piling up sandbags in Turner Station to keep out the water. Ellicott City in Howard County got a lot of public investment, but where’s the plan for a Baltimore County village that’s been home to the Black steelworkers and factory workers of Sparrows Point since the 19th century?

Call them what you will — needs, wants or deficits — but Maryland doesn’t need to expand government or produce new initiatives, it just needs to attend to problems that are getting overlooked today. Better to put that $1.1 billion to work as one-time grants to non-profits or others who are actually doing something about these concerns than to leave it in a pile untouched.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.


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