By Raymund Lee Flandez
ANNAPOLIS – It looked like it was going to get out of control.
Even before the members of the committee that studies Maryland’s fiscal structure sat down, unionized state employees had already filled the cavernous chamber with chants:
“Don’t balance the budget on state workers’ backs.”
“Maryland works because we do.”
“You say cut back, we say fight back.”
Sporting green T-shirts and holding signs, they were there to stop the 17- member Commission on Maryland’s Fiscal Structure from even considering serious cuts in state employee bonuses and salaries.
Thursday’s hearing served as a listening post for committee members of concerns shared by various organizations in the state. The committee will report to the General Assembly next month with its set of recommendations in balancing the state’s budget, which estimates put nearly $600 million in the red.
The chorus of more than 100 members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees was only silenced by the warning of Chairman Fred W. Puddester about the seriousness of the hearing. It didn’t help that the lights blacked out 10 minutes before testimony began.
Four full pages of witnesses signed up – from mental health and children advocates to mayors and a police chief – to send one message: Don’t reduce essential services in areas such as education, public safety and health. Instead, find more money.
Last week, the committee made public some suggestions for balancing the state’s budget worth about $372 million.
Among the cuts, which were compiled by the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Services Department for the committee, were $90 million in aid to local governments and $59 million in state worker costs.
As expected, the suggestions weren’t received well by the dozens of groups.
“I urge you to look at revenue options instead of cutting options,” said Jane Walker of the Maryland Coalition of Families for Children’s Mental Health.
“When we make cuts, we have got to be smarter than that,” another witness said. “We have to have priorities and results in mind.”
Gov. Parris N. Glendening on Wednesday detailed his plans for shoring up the sagging budget figures. While he couldn’t promise that layoffs wouldn’t occur, he did say that everything must be done to avoid balancing the budget on the backs of state workers.
Speaker after speaker included details of how the suggested cuts would affect senior citizens, children and state workers.
The Maryland Association of Counties predicted that there would be intense bitterness among local governments and the state, should local aid be reduced.
The Maryland Municipal League said cuts would affect “the health, well- being and safety of our citizens.”
“Protect a child today to prevent the crime tomorrow,” urged a child welfare advocate.
Rockville Mayor Larry Giammo said two parks, which were set to be constructed this year, have been delayed because of cuts made last year. Reductions will mean more disappointed children.
But if no cuts in services should be allowed, then “where would you like to see the revenue come from?” asked commission member Barbara M. Coit.
Raise taxes, said Carl Stokes of the Maryland Education Coalition, citing a poll showing that Marylanders are willing to pay for priorities such as education spending.
“When it comes down to our priorities, we feel that children and families should be held sacrosanct,” Stokes said.
Gayle Hoffner of the Maryland Disability Law Center said skyrocketing costs in nursing home care could easily be reduced just by shutting some of the institutions down.
“You are wasting money,” Hoffner told members. “You are keeping people where they do not want to be or need to be.”
She said the state is spending about $50,000 each for about 20,000 people, when care for them should only cost about $30,000. “You need the money,” she said. “We need the freedom. It’s a great deal.”
Sen. Thomas McLain Middleton, D-Charles, was hesitant to consider the idea, mentioning that finding adequate staff will cost the state more in the long run. At one point, Middleton said, “None of us want to make these cuts.”