Where budget is concerned, legislators failed us

April 12, 2012

Government budgets are frequently compared to household budgets; we have to live within our means, so government should be able to do the same. It’s an easy metaphor and as with most shallow generalizations, it is misguided.

A government, for instance, can push its debt into perpetuity. Those of us who face an inevitable end do not enjoy this advantage. And a government has a collective duty to the public that saves individual households from hiring police officers and raising standing armies.

But where the lines of households and governments intersect is in the matter of responsibility.

The heads of a household and the heads of government have an obligation to do their jobs, be it to manage the mortgage or Medicare.

In this sense, the Maryland General Assembly has failed us. Lawmakers have shirked their responsibility to manage the state’s finances in a prudent and adult fashion.

At the end of the 90-day session this week, a $500 million hole remained in the state’s preferred spending plan, and angry leaders pointed fingers at each other for what amounted to a collapse of the legislative process in the session’s final hours.

We are used to this sort of bickering between parties, but this embarrassment was entirely a Democratic production. Republicans sat by and watched as Democrats failed to agree on a major gambling law and a revenue plan that would raise taxes on the wealthy — if a $100,000 salary makes an individual wealthy these days.

Republicans would just as soon go home and allow the state’s stopgap “doomsday” budget stand as is. That would force $500 million in cuts this summer, which they do not view as a bad thing.

Democratic leaders, however, believe this would be horrific for education, among other things, and appear headed toward a special session to raise taxes, tilt the burden of teacher pensions toward the counties and set the stage for casino gambling.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller shrugged off the most recent edition of the Keystone Lawmakers, assuring anyone who would listen that this is no big deal and it will all get done in time. But House Speaker Michael E. Busch was more reserved, saying that no workable plan currently exists, and Gov. Martin O’Malley went so far as to call it a “low point” in his association with Annapolis.

We suspect Miller is correct; taxes, gaming and pensions will be addressed in a slapdash special session, and everyone will smile for the cameras and that will be that.

But Maryland sells itself as a progressive state, with an AAA bond rating and a populace that is better cared for, protected and educated by its government. What we saw this session, however, was a ship without a wheel — Miller making mischief, Busch slow to react and O’Malley already in 2016 presidential campaign mode.

We have seen what happens at the federal level when House Republicans invite catastrophe by refusing to negotiate. We are sure our state leaders do not consider themselves to be that caliber of politician, but the citizenry can be excused if it does not make a distinction.

Lawmaking invites comparisons to sausage making, and it’s true that the process is difficult to stomach. There reaches a point, however, when voters have had all they can take, and politicians who do not realize that times are changing and that they are on the voter equivalent of “double secret probation” invite defeat. It should not be too much to ask that our representatives at all levels from time to time demonstrate professionalism.

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