By Raymund Lee Flandez
ANNAPOLIS – Members of the commission studying Maryland’s fiscal structure examined the virtue of budget and revenue proposals Friday to address the state’s deficit with the goal of sending recommendations to Gov.-elect Robert Ehrlich Jr. and lawmakers next week.
“The list includes all the usual suspects,” said Sen. Robert R. Neall, D- Anne Arundel, a committee member. “I don’t think anyone left anything out.”
Chairman Frederick W. Puddester said a combination of revenue enhancements and spending cuts need to be made to make a dent in the state’s estimated $1.7 billion shortfall in the next two years.
Proposals included reducing state worker salaries, reducing agency grants, cutting aid to local governments and setting next year’s spending by colleges and universities at this year’s level.
“I guess what this proves is that it’s no fun to be broke and in debt,” said committee member Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington.
The committee is also weighing raising income and sales taxes to 6 percent each from 4.75 percent and 5 percent, respectively. The gas tax could also be raised by 7 cents from 23.5 cents, estimated to raise about $140 million.
“I think this commission should set the record straight that you can’t get something for nothing,” Neall said.
Neall said the $500 million rainy day fund, which has been suggested as the primary solution to the state’s dilemma, should only be used as the last resort. Some disagreed.
“I don’t believe we should empty the piggy bank,” said committee member Sabrina W. Bush, “but it should remain on the table.”
Members will vote Tuesday to approve their first report. The 17-member commission, formed by the 2002 General Assembly, will attempt to make long-term plans for state’s fiscal structure for its final report next year.
Some wonder, however, how effective the commission’s report will be with a change of party in the governor’s office and new legislative leaders at the helm.
Delegate Sheila Hixson, D-Montgomery, chairwoman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said previous commission reports on these issues were largely ignored by the General Assembly. She told members to brace themselves if their ideas are rejected.
“There are outside forces out there,” said Hixson of interest groups. “Believe me.”
The report is “not worth the time of day because the governor will make his own budget decision anyway”, said William Skinner, president of the Maryland Tax Education Foundation Inc. Legislators have no ability to put them into effect other than to cut Ehrlich’s proposed budget, he added.
“It’s a Democratically appointed cover-up,” Skinner said, “because they knew the budget was out of whack,” but didn’t do anything about it until it was too late. The commission is just a tax-raising commission spurred on by outgoing Gov. Parris Glendening, Skinner added.
As for the commission’s suggestions of raising taxes, that is not an option for Ehrlich, said Shareese DeLeaver, a spokeswoman for the governor- elect.
“All recommendations are on the table right now,” DeLeaver said. “The transition team . . . is conducting a thorough analysis and evaluation of every area of state government. There are cuts to be made and there are no easy decisions.” – 30 – CNS-12-6-02