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The governor's budget

January 19, 1999

Tomorrow, Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening will present his budget to the 1999 General Assembly, and the only thing certain is that it will be cut, even though legislative leaders agree that his priorities - education aid and school construction funds - are the right ones. But the absence of an unlimited supply of money means that something's got to give.

Legislative leaders who serve on the Spending Affordability Committee already cut the governor some slack this year, agreeing to allow the state budget to grow by 5.9 percent, though personal income is expected to grow by only 4.9 percent.

That didn't satisfy Glendening, who is bringing in a budget with a spending increase of 7.3 percent, and proposing that it be funded in part with a per-pack cigarette tax increase of 50 cents, which should raise $155 million.

We have - and always have had - strong reservations about counting on tobacco tax revenues to fund a substantial portion of the state budget. At least one of the reasons that the governor is proposing this tax is to get more people to quit smoking. If the strategy is successful, it stands to reason that the revenues will drop.

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The tobacco tax strategy also assumes that other states will do likewise. Instead, what will probably happen, is that those Maryland residents who can will slip across the state line, never very far away in the Free State, will buy their smokes elsewhere, thus costing the state more revenue.

The legislature needs to do two things. The first is to convince the governor that any money obtained form the tobacco-tax increase should go to smoking-related health care. That way, when the strategy begins to pay off, and the revenues start to fall, then there'll be less need for them.

But the second and most important thing lawmakers need to do is to craft an educational aid formula that is based on need, and not on the political clout of the jurisdiction grabbing for more money. There won't be as much money as anyone would like, and legislators needs to impose order, unless they want a mad scramble for the remaining cash, at the cost of some needy children's education.

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