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Not to spoil the fun, but here's how state budget crisis plays out

August 27, 2007|By TIM ROWLAND

The Maryland Republican party, which earlier this month confirmed that it is flat broke, is now telling citizens that it has some good ideas for managing the state budget, which is $1.5 billion in the red.

What's next, the former management of Enron putting together a seminar on ethics?

Although taken in this light - experience counts - perhaps the GOP does have something to contribute in the sense that it knows a bit about what happens when spending exceeds income.

The only thing preventing the Republicans from being laughed out of the state on this matter is, predictably, the Democrats, whose solutions are just as weak.

You will note that the Democratic Party apparently is not broke, probably because it has done a better job of "taxing" its own base in the form of contributions.

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Therefore, Democrats have experience of their own when it comes to budget crises, and that's simply to return to the tax well to fill up the bucket. It pains them to have to raise taxes, they say, adding that they really have no other choice.

Republicans say there is a choice, but they're not telling us what it is. It's like Nixon's secret plan to end the war.

Not to spoil things, but here's what will happen.

1. Republicans propose a list of cuts they know will be politically and/or practically impossible to pass. They know these cuts will not pass, but that's not the point. The point is that it will allow Republican candidates to go back to voters and say, "Hey, we had a plan that would have saved you from tax hikes, but the Democrats wouldn't listen."

True, the Republicans had a plan. It was bogus, but it was a plan.

2. And speaking of bogus, next will come the Democrats' howls of outrage at the Republican plan in its entirety - even though, by accident if nothing else, a few of the Republican ideas would be worthy of further discussion.

Among Democrats in Annapolis, any proposal from a Republican is by definition a bad idea and will never see the light of day.

Instead of debating the plan, Democrats will fax the plan to the agencies and groups that Republicans have targeted for cuts. This will anger the affected groups which will muster their troops, rally at the State House and prattle on about how the Republicans are insensitive to those people in the state who are most in need. In some cases they will be right. In some cases not so much. But the rallies make for good photo ops and provide local lawmakers to get their pictures and comments in the newspaper stories about them, so it's not a total loss.

3. This is my favorite. Democrats will argue that Republicans want to cut Medicare. Or maybe it's Medicaid, I forget. Enraged Republicans will counter by saying that they do not to plan to cut Mediwhatever, they just want to reduce the amount by which Democrats want it to increase. So they are actually in favor of increasing the program, just at a slower rate.

Democrats will call this tactic pure semantics, saying that any cut in growth is a cut in fact. This argument over the definition of "cut" will go on for weeks, and politicians on both sides of the aisle will get really offended and come out with charts and graphs and numbers to prove their respective points.

If there's a better use of lawmaker time, I'd like to hear about it.

4. Democrats will pass a tax, but they will call it something else. For example, in increase in the gas tax becomes the Initiative to Reduce America's Energy Dependence on the Arabs Act. An increase in the income tax is done in the name of "fairness." An expansion of the sales tax is merely an effort to "level the playing field" between the providers of goods and the providers of services. Whatever that means.

5. Republicans will scream bloody murder - until some state transportation bureaucrat taps them on the shoulder and says, "If you don't vote for the gas tax, your district won't get any new roads."

This calms things down a bit. There will be feeble whimpers among Republicans of "If they had only listened to our plan we wouldn't have to do this" and the ever-popular, "This crisis is a lot more serious than we realized, so in the interests of saving state government, we reluctantly agree ..."

Republican lawmakers say they want cuts and they do - if the cuts are in someone else's district. When it's in their own district, they are more judicious.

5a. Washington County version: Our lawmakers stick to their principles and vote against the tax. The tax passes anyway, of course, but we will wind up paying for other counties' improvements but have nothing to show for it ourselves.

4 (revisited). Democrats cheerfully pass a budget with few tax increases, but cut the bejeebers out of county budgets - forcing the counties to increase taxes. In reality, cutting county budgets is the same as increasing taxes. But as long as the voting public doesn't realize this, it's no skin off state lawmakers' noses.

And don't think that the state hasn't noticed that Washington County, for example, has prudently socked away some $30 million to prepare for a rainy day. That's the problem with squirreling away cash. Sooner or later the state is going to notice it. And want it.

6. The crisis passes, leaving us all the poorer for it, but preserving business as usual. As one Harford County official said: "It doesn't keep me up at night because they're going to do what they're going to do. I tell people the ... government will open the next day, just like it did the day before."

A depressing thought, if ever there was.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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