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Legislature digs a mighty budget hole

April 16, 2002|BY TIM ROWLAND

April 8 marked the end of what, to my mind, was the most successful Maryland General Assembly session ever. Not only did they spend this year's budget, they pretty much spent all of next year's budget, too. So in 2003 there is no reason for them to go back.

Is there a question in anyone's mind that state lawmakers could take a year off and not be missed? The budget is the only thing that requires annual attention, and since the cash is all committed for next year, too, why bother?

Faced with a $700 million shortfall, the legislature bravely stood up and pronounced these historic words of frugality: "Money Fight!" Then they proceeded to throw cash at each other in a cackling block party of spending.

Better yet, they raised a stein and voted each other hefty pay raises for a job well done, while sticking it to those annoying, lethargic state workers by giving them no pay raise whatsoever.

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One state budget analyst quoted in The Washington Post said Maryland was "fortunate," because other states with budget shortfalls were raising taxes and cutting programs.

Um - yes? And we are fortunate because instead of raising taxes and cutting programs we addressed our budget shortfall by cutting taxes and spending even more money on programs?

The final phase of an income tax cut was approved this session, which is nice. But what's the over/under on when they're going to have to start phasing tax hikes back in again because they can't pay their bills? I've got 2005, but I may be optimistic.

House Speaker Cas Taylor has said, "We have the lowest sales tax on the East Coast." Uh-oh, you know what that means. We're about NOT to have the lowest sales tax on the East Coast. Oh, please, you didn't seriously think they would cut taxes in one area without raising it in another.

Mark my words, we'll end up paying more in a sales tax increase than we will save in the income tax decrease. Either that or smokes will go up to $40 a pack.

In all my years in Annapolis, I prayed a lawmaker would stand up and say something like, "This budget unfairly balances the budget on the back of the tobacco industry." Now there's a dismal plausibility to that joke that renders it useless.

By the way, how come tobacco gets shelled every year, but they leave hooch alone? Perhaps that's a statement on the lifestyles of the General Assembly at large (they get wined and dined by lobbyists, not puffed and dined).

If they raise the liquor tax, people will start drinking more to forget that it costs so much to drink - and that means they will be paying even more tax! It makes me wonder how the legislature could have missed a revenue spiral with such an upside.

Speaking of circular logic, I love this quote from The Washington Post: "Lawmakers patted themselves on the back for their far-sighted decision during the recent boom years to plow huge surpluses into one-time construction projects, not expensive tax givebacks..."

I suppose we should say a prayer of thanksgiving that we are blessed with such wise, principled and far-sighted leaders who - when confronted with the specter of letting people keep their own money - had the fortitude to spend it themselves.

The by-product of all this success is that next year the General Assembly will start out with a budget deficit of $800 million. Pity. If they'd been just a little more successful, they could have started out the year a nice round $1 billion in the hole.

The funny part is no one seems worried in the least, which tells me that this year's budget is keeping the seat warm for slot machines. And really, they can't make the argument for both slot revenue AND a higher sales tax if they're running a surplus, can they? Of course not. That's why to a lawmaker, running an $800 million deficit is a mix of smart planning and good, old-fashioned common sense.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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