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April 16, 2003

Two Armies! Two Approaches For Victory! What's At Stake?

John W. Ashbury

"Spend and Tax!" A reversal of the old Tax and Spend philosophy of so many governments in the recent past - particularly in Maryland - seems to be the catch phrase of the moment. Everywhere you look Republicans are blasting Democrats for the rise of deficit spending across the country.

Forty states, or more, are facing budget shortfalls in the coming years. And each seems to be taking a different tact to answer the needs of a slow economy and the bills for past spending coming due. Adding to the mix is higher unemployment rates, thus reduced income tax receipts. A delicate balancing act that no one seems to be able to accomplish remains on the horizon.

What to fund? What not to fund? How can we get more revenues without burdening the already overburdened taxpayers.

Both Virginia and Maryland started the year staring a $2 billion deficit square in the face. Their approaches to solutions differ vastly.

Virginia is more than twice as large in land mass than is Maryland, but it has only 33 percent more people - 5.3 to 7.1 million residents.

Virginia's legislature, dominated by Republicans in a state with a Democrat as governor, took the bull by the horns and cut spending by $2 billion, plus the legislators cut, or left vacant, more than 6,000 jobs.

Maryland, on the other hand, cut spending by only $942 million, less than half the deficit, and left vacant - or cut - only 945 jobs.

The rest of the budgetary holes were filled by both states with a raid on their respective transportation funds, health trusts and rainy-day accounts to the tune of $752 million in Maryland and $374 million in Virginia.

And where Maryland's legislature approved $455 million in new taxes and fees, Virginia's elected officials did the same but only to the tune of $8.9 million. That's a huge difference in anyone's book.

It would certainly seem that the Democrats who dominate the Maryland General Assembly have only a one track mind - tax and fee increases. All through the session we heard time and again about the possibility of hikes in the sales and income tax should slots fail. Slots failed, in case you didn't know it.

Slot machine gambling is not the long term answer to Maryland's financial woes. It would only be a stop-gap measure which will likely only delay increased taxes in the future. The answer lies in a reduced bureaucracy, better management of funds, and tighter controls on those agencies which spend the most money. The state of Maryland has more than 88,000 employees.

Just -- as an example -- look at the funding higher education received in the last years of the Parris Glendening administration in Annapolis. Hundreds of millions of dollars, if not a billion or two, was shipped to the state's university system ostensibly to bolster the education their cash-paying students receive.

But where did a lot of the money go? Into the pockets of staff and into an improvement plan which added two levels to an already bloated bureaucracy. You may not believe this but the employees at such institutions as The University of Maryland will receive a 41 percent increase in pay over five years.

Certainly most university instructors are paid less than they are worth, although it is getting better. But a 41 percent pay hike for college professors during a downturn in the economy will do nothing to improve the national welfare, only line the pockets of the intelligentsia.

Governor Robert Ehrlich is to be commended generally for sticking to his campaign promise of no increase in sales and income taxes. However, the general public took his campaign rhetoric to heart and thought they heard NO NEW TAXES AT ALL. He couldn't hold to that broad a promise.

The Democratic leadership in the General Assembly is saying now that the governor first brought up the idea of increasing the state's property tax by five cents to offset increases in debt service. Maryland's constitution requires that tax to pay the state's cost of bonding. In recent years, with the economy booming, the state kept the rate at eight cents per hundred of assessed value and provided the needed extra money from the state's general fund.

The governor is also being cited by Democrats as having proposed increased fees for corporations doing business in Maryland. But now the governor is saying he will veto those new fees and, instead, will cut additional spending, with the consent of one more member of the three-person Board of Public Works, a procedure allowed under state law.

It is clear that the budget crisis that ruled Annapolis this year will be worse next year. What they are calling a "structural deficit" hasn't been addressed. If you think the state budget was tight this year, just wait. You ain't seen nothing yet, as the old saying goes.

We, as citizens, must be ever vigilant of what our elected leaders say and do. We can't accept what any of them say as the gospel truth. We must arm ourselves with the facts and then decide for ourselves whether to believe what they say.

You must listen carefully to what Governor Ehrlich says, especially when he casts aspersions on the Democrats in the General Assembly. But you must do the same when the Democrats vilify the governor and his proposals for economic recovery.

Remember, Doug Duncan, Montgomery County executive, and Martin O'Malley, mayor of Baltimore, are chomping at the bit to replace Governor Ehrlich in just short of four years. And Democrats, who outnumber Republicans statewide by two-to-one, are already saying that Bobby Ehrlich is a one term governor. Watch what they do to derail this governor and then decide for yourself. Pay particular attention to their rhetoric on financial matters.

In this corner there is a firm belief that if the truth be known, the best man will win when that race comes to Election Day. And somehow, I can't get it out of my mind that Mayor O'Malley told the Carroll County Democrats at a fund-raiser last year, that if there are any problems in the state of Maryland over the past 40 years, you can only blame Democrats.

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