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O'Malley cuts would hit state's most vulnerable

October 25, 2007

Why send people from the big city to the rural areas to scare people into supporting your plan when you can get local folks to do the job for you?

That's apparently the strategy being employed by Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, who is trying to line up votes to pass revenue-raising measures to plug a $1.7 billion hole in the state's budget.

We don't doubt that there will be cuts in state aid to local counties if some revenue-raising measures aren't passed. The state's population is growing, which means new schools will be needed. Health-care costs will also continue to increase, as many people without insurance keep using hospital emergency rooms as a substitute for the family doctors that they can't afford.

But we believe O'Malley hits below the belt when his proposal suggests it might be necessary to close either Hagerstown's Potomac Center or the Brandenburg Center near Cumberland, Md., and combine their patients in one facility.

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As we have said many times previously, the Potomac Center, like the Western Maryland Hospital Center, serves a vulnerable population of people whose families are easily upset.

Imagine having a severely retarded child who has settled into a routine at a facility such as Potomac Center. The patients come to know and like their caregivers and the family has confidence that their sons and daughters are being well-treated.

Then comes a pencil-pusher who doesn't see the people involved, but only the possibility of saving a few dollars.

Again, as we have written previously, Maryland is not a poor state. Its most vulnerable residents should not be held hostage in a budget process. There is no financial need that justifies doing that.

James Johnson, the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene's deputy secretary for operations, said the plan includes "pretty Draconian measures that affect pretty vulnerable populations."

It's been a traditional political ploy in some big cities to drum up support for tax increases by telling citizens that unless they support them, some firehouses will have to be closed.

In those cases, however, the citizens could rally against the closings, something that is impossible for Potomac Center patients.

If Republicans can convincingly restate their case that the deficit can be closed without new taxes or deep cuts in local aid, they must do so now.

In August, the House Republican Caucus proposed a plan to slow the growth of the state's general fund budget for two years.

In 2008, Republicans are proposing a 3.5 percent increase as opposed to the 8.5 percent anticipated in O'Malley's budget.

By slowing general fund budget growth, Republicans say, state revenues will have a chance to catch up with spending.

The GOP notes that the budget went out of whack several years ago when there was an income-tax cut and an increase in education spending without any corresponding effort to find new revenues or budget cuts.

It won't be easy. Republican General Assembly members are already claiming that their views on the budget are not being taken seriously.

In a special session, they will probably get even less attention. Their only resort is to take their plan back to the public now.

It's the Republicans' job to make this case. It is not enough to say that O'Malley's proposed cuts are too harsh. The governor is saying that there is no middle ground between fiscal disaster for local governments and an increase in taxes.

It's up to the Republicans to present an alternative, while there's still a chance that they can get citizens' attention.

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