Cut now or cut later?
Lawmakers divided on whether state should make deeper cuts now or wait to see if economy improves
ANNAPOLIS As lawmakers push forward on budget discussions, a philosophical difference appears to have formed between two camps those who want to cut more now and boost Maryland's reserves and those who prefer to take their chances the economy will rebound.
Politics and more specifically this fall's elections are driving both sides.
Lawmakers can tout their fiscal responsibility now and avoid taking heat for deep cuts closer to November, observers said. Others would prefer to leave Annapolis with less blood on their hands, boasting they preserved money for their constituents.
"No matter what, underlying all of these calculations are geared towards November and none of them matter after November," said Patrick H. Roddy, a lobbyist for Rifkin, Livingston, Levitan & Silver, who follows budget proceedings.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Dist. 27) of Chesapeake Beach said Wednesday that the amount that ends up in the state's reserves makes no difference. He said it is inevitable further cuts after the legislative session will be needed.
Miller said he does not favor increasing the state's fund balance surplus money built into the budget to protect against midyear revenue shortfall beyond the $274 million proposed by Gov. Martin O'Malley (D).
"No matter what we do, [the Board of Public Works] will have to make a substantial number of cuts," he said.
House Appropriations Chairman Norman H. Conway (D-Dist. 38B) of Salisbury wants to increase the state's reserves, but declined to pinpoint a specific target.
"We always give thought to the fund balance primarily because you don't want to keep having to come back and make cuts," he said. "We want to minimize that to the degree that we can."
Conway, who could face a tough re-election campaign on the Eastern Shore, is one of those lawmakers who want to avoid a fresh round of cuts closer to the election.
Del. John L. Bohanan Jr. (D-Dist. 29B) of California said he believes lawmakers in both chambers are looking to increase the fund balance.
"People always portray it as partisan," Bohanan said. "Oftentimes, it's geographical and most times it is that nobody wants to take the reductions. I mean nobody."
"Both parties fight and squirm and wiggle and mash teeth as much as the other," he said. "There is no partisanship when it comes to teeth-mashing on the budget cuts. And in the end, we do it."
Bohanan is not confident the BPW will be able to steer clear of making further cuts over the summer and fall. If they do, they will not be as drastic as they have been in recent years, he said.
The BPW cut the state's budget by $1.1 billion in fiscal 2010, which ends June 30.
Lawmakers want to avoid deep budget cuts right before an election, said Roy Meyers, a professor of political science at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.
However, he said it is not just an election-year desire. The Democratic Party has enough fiscal moderates who routinely worry about the state's long-term budget outlook.
Meyers said some have called for removing long-term mandated growth built into the budget an idea Miller said Wednesday he supported.
House and Senate Republicans proposed deeper cuts to the budget in an effort to boost the state's reserves as a hedge against a declining economy and pressure to increase taxes. The actual cuts differed greatly between the two chambers.
November's election is "on a lot of minds," said House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell, one of the architect's of the House plan. He said Republicans presented a plan that makes tough cuts now, which might not be popular politically, but are in the best long-term interests of Marylanders.
Conversely, irresponsible lawmakers who defer cuts could benefit politically, said O'Donnell (R-Dist. 29C) of Lusby.
"Suggesting lasting budget cuts this year is necessary and important," regardless of it being an election year, he said.
The governor left the $274 million fund balance in his budget as a "cushion" in case revenue estimates fall short, O'Malley spokesman Shaun Adamec said.
"The $274 million leaves a little bit of room to work with," he said.
Maryland Association of Counties Legislative Director Michael Sanderson said he has heard some lawmakers are hoping to leave this legislative session with a much higher reserve fund than O'Malley has proposed.
That means lawmakers would make deep budget cuts in the next few weeks.
Senate budget decisions were unveiled Thursday. The full chamber will not likely begin work on the budget until sometime next week.
At the same time, House budget subcommittees will start making decisions Tuesday, Bohanan said.
The problem is there is little left to cut, Sanderson said.
It's not good politics or smart public policy to budget for the unknown while counties are struggling and having to make deep budget cuts of their own, he said.
"There is a certain amount of common sense behind Do everything when you need to,' as opposed to Do it now and sort out what was necessary later,'" he said.
"It's not a good way to run a government with a half-billion dollars lying around," Sanderson said.
The split between storing reserves away now versus managing with a smaller fund balance is "a debate that takes place almost every session," House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Dist. 30) of Annapolis said.
But he was upbeat about what the future might hold. "Every indication that we have is that the revenue picture is improving."