April 27, 2012

MARYLAND LAWMAKERS have made such a mess of the people’s business that it now looks like it will take two special legislative sessions in Annapolis, not just one, to straighten things out. But really, there’s a simpler solution: Do nothing.

We’re being facetious, but only slightly. The truth is that if lawmakers in the General Assembly were to stay home and skip the special sessions, the effect would be to cancel plans for a tax increase; spare the state a senseless expansion of casino gambling; eliminate some dubious spending programs; and ensure that Maryland’s $35 billion budget still manages to grow by a respectable $700 million, about 2 percent.

None of that sounds exactly like doomsday. Nonetheless, the Democrats who dominate the legislature insist that returning to Annapolis is obligatory to prevent what they refer to as a “doomsday” budget — a default spending plan whose $500 million in cuts to certain programs were designed to be distasteful to Democrats and the interest groups that support them. A second special session would deal with proposals to add table games at existing casinos and to authorize construction of a new casino.

The doomsday budget came into play when lawmakers, distracted by ego contests among their leadership and a proposal to expand casino gambling, failed to adopt related tax and spending bills as the clock ran out on their regular legislative session this month. That failure scuttled a bill to increase taxes on individuals making more than $100,000 a year (and families clearing $150,000) and one to shift part of the cost of teachers’ pensions to localities from the state, which until now has paid the full tab.

When lawmakers rubbed their eyes the next day, they discovered the doomsday plan amid the wreckage — more than $200 million in cuts to schools; reduced aid to state universities and community colleges; and the elimination of funds for police, libraries and state employees, who’d lose their first pay increase in several years.

The doomsday budget would inflict some pain to schools, particularly in Prince George’s County, Baltimore City and some other relatively poor systems. But not all the reductions would cut very deeply, and some would be an improvement. For instance, it would be an excellent thing to scrap the $12 million slush funds that lawmakers use to hand out scholarships to the children of their constituents and donors.

The funding cuts for state universities would result in higher-than-planned tuition and fees — but would probably leave the schools competitive with comparable institutions in the Mid-Atlantic. And the state would survive if it scrubbed $10.4 million for stem cell research and $8 million in tax credits for biotechnology.

Restoring those programs would require tax increases on people barely beyond the middle class. Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) argues that Maryland has one of the nation’s lowest state and local tax burdens as a percentage of income, owing to the state’s relative wealth. But the fact remains that its taxes remain very high in nominal terms, and Maryland, which competes with Virginia for jobs, can ill afford to undercut its competitive standing by reinforcing its reputation for soaking the rich.

If Mr. O’Malley and lawmakers are intent on returning to Annapolis to fix the budget and fiddle with taxes, their best course would be a minimalist one — restoring some school funding and leaving the rest alone. As for a separate session to add a sixth casino before the five previously authorized ones have all been built, what a waste of time.