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Maryland lawmakers warned to 'get real' about budget problems

Maryland's top legislative analyst warned state lawmakers Tuesday to "get real" about what's driving chronic budget gaps and suggested they consider trimming spending.

Warren G. Deschenaux, executive director of the Department of Legislative Services, told about three dozen state lawmakers that they are responsible — not a recession — for hundreds of millions of budget shortfalls in recent years.

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"This time, I think, is different," Deschenaux said at a briefing in Annapolis. "This time, it's all on us."

State forecasters overestimated how much money the state would take in by about $785 million over the course of this year and next. Even under optimistic scenarios, Deschenaux said the state laws call for spending to outpace revenue by 1.2 percent, a gap that will force policy makers to cut $250 million every single year.

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"We need to get real, and getting real means not counting on and budgeting up to every possible dime," Deschenaux said.

He pointed out that while lawmakers routinely close such gaps, they normally do with temporary cuts one year at a time, falsely assuming a future economic boon will stave off the need for permanent budget cuts.

"It requires, perhaps, an unnatural quantity of discipline to avoid being optimistic," he said. "If we're going to avoid this sort of 'Groundhog Day' without Bill Murray experience, we just have to get real. … We are in a period of comparatively slow economic growth. We need to trim our sails to accommodate that."

Republican lawmakers who have long lobbied the Democratic majority to scale back spending echoed the warning that the economy will not improve.

"The cavalry's not coming," said Sen. Andrew Serafini, a Republican from Western Maryland.

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan campaigned to roll back spending. His administration said Tuesday that the briefing to the General Assembly's Spending Affordability Committee and other legislative fiscal leaders demonstrated the need to join forces "to deliver real spending reform."

Amelia Chassé, Hogan's deputy communications director, said that the state's "solid revenue growth of 3.5 percent" could not keep up with state spending.

"From day one, Governor Hogan has been addressing Maryland's long-standing budget issues and working to rein in mandated spending," Chassé said in a statement. "We will continue to work with our partners in the legislature to finally return common sense budgeting to our state."

Legislative leaders will meet again Nov. 17 to discuss how much the state should spend next year. The current $42 billion budget has an estimated $287 million shortfall.

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