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Could 'doomsday budget' bring good?

April 29, 2012|By TIM ROWLAND | timr@herald-mail.com

When the clock approached midnight on the last day of the West Virginia legislative session, lawmakers — if they still had unfinished business to complete — used to simply pull the plug on the clock and continue their work.

When you think about it, it was one of the more elegant solutions you are likely to see in politics.

Not being as creative, Maryland lawmakers ran out the clock this year before they could finish up a tax-and-craps package that would raise income tax on the (somewhat) wealthy and pave the way for expanded state gambling.

This might be the first time in Maryland history that the legislature has needed extra time to decide whether to raise taxes. Perhaps it is a good sign that now, apparently, they understand that there might be a potential downside.

Maryland has a constitutional duty to pass a balanced budget, and this they did before the midnight deadline. It is this spending plan that has been branded a “doomsday budget” because it does not include the aforementioned tax revenues, and hence is about a half-billion dollars short of what the state would like to spend.

So the special session we’ve heard so much about would fix things, at least in the eyes of Democrats who are preaching catastrophe if we have to make do with less.

Republicans, of course, are content to allow the current spending plan to stand and let the cuts fall where they may. It bears repeating that these are cuts to proposed increases in spending, not cuts to the budget as it was passed a year ago.

Nor is this by any means the first doomsday budget that Marylanders have found dangling over their heads. It seems as if a “doomsday budget” comes along once every few years, accompanied by its wingman, those dreaded “Draconian cuts.”

Sometimes doomsday really means doomsday, as in hungry children who will not be fed, elderly who will not be housed and sick who will not be treated. In a civilized society, these have no place and any budget that fails as a safety net is indeed an indicator of doom.

But this budget isn’t one of them. To be sure, few will find a pet project or constituency that won’t suffer somewhat. For me, that’s community colleges, which I view as the one educational model that happens to be working at the moment.

There are, however, some aspects of the doomsday budget that can be viewed as reform, including the elimination of that ridiculous scholarship program that allows lawmakers a virtual slush fund with which to purchase political favors. If it takes doomsday to eliminate that one, doom away.

The budget must also be modified in order to implement the controversial transfer of some teacher-pension obligations from the state to the counties. This transfer is not an entirely bad idea, but not too many locals are going to be caught weeping if it’s delayed a year. And while doomsday wipes out a small, state-employee pay raise, how much of this raise will state employees have left if the legislature is permitted to return for one more tax-raising bender?

Speaking of which, raising taxes on the wealthy is all the rage these days, but Maryland and the federal government team up to demonstrate why this isn’t as enjoyable as it might sound. Taxing the truly rich doesn’t reach enough households. And while formulation of tax policy based on the financial paradigm of a tycoon, vis-à-vis his clerical help, might make for a good political ad, one can’t help but think there are better methods for raising revenue fairly and efficiently.

The state, on the other hand, wants to tax the rich and then defines “rich” as anyone who is doing more for a living than collecting roadside cans. True, a lot of us out here in the sticks might be pleased with a six-figure taxable income, but you get closer to the city and that’s the heart and soul of the middle class. Slaughter that golden goose at your own risk.

But for state Democrats, probably the greatest fear is this: What if we are forced to live with a doomsday budget and nobody notices? If we discover that a doomsday budget isn’t much of a diversion from business as usual, people might start to wonder what else we could live without at no appreciable detriment to our lives or society at large.

I’d be all for this experiment: Let’s see what doomsday really brings us. If, a year from now, we have survived, we might ask ourselves what other fiscally prudent avenues might be open for exploration. On the other hand, if a year from now we’re all doomed, I owe you a Coke.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. His email address is timr@herald-mail.com.

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