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Courting fiscal disaster

January 15, 1999

The Maryland General Assembly opened its 90-day session this week, but the real meat of this session won't be served up until next week, when Gov. Parris Glendening presents his budget. In a season of surplus, Glendening apparently plans to spend plenty.

If the strategy is to use the surplus for one-time capital expenditures, that would be a prudent use of taxpayers' dollars. It's the governor's proposal to obligate the state to millions in new operating expenses that worries us.

First, some facts about the budget: Although the average Marylander's personal income is slated to grow by 4.9 percent, the Spending Affordability Committee recently gave the governor the green light to up state spending by 5.9 percent.

His aides say the budget will be well above that figure, worrying lawmakers who see Glendening as an indulgent parent offering the voters goodies that the legislature may have to reject to keep the state on an even keel financially.

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The biggest goodie is the governor's proposal to have the state take over Baltimore's circuit-court system, following the dismissal of a first-degree murder case because detectives couldn't find the suspect's mug shots. It is the fifth such dismissal in recent months, a situation Glendening called "intolerable" in calling for a state takeover.

The proposal came up during the 1998 campaign and has the support of Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke and Prince George's County Executive Wayne Curry, both of whom belatedly endorsed Glendening after a brief flirtation with Eileen Rehrmann. The kicker is that it would cost $131 million a year. At least.

That's a big chunk of a state surplus expected to hit $200 million by June 30. And in future years, even if there is no surplus, the state would still be obligated to fund that. How? We're not sure.

Until state officials are sure, and until someone explains why city officials who can't perform should be rewarded with additional state money, Baltimore can pay for its own court system.

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