Washington area officials eye deep cuts to fill budget gaps

By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 10, 2010

The stimulus is mostly spent. The rainy-day funds have been dipped into. Most of the accounting gimmicks have been used. After two years of doing whatever they could to balance their budgets, state and local lawmakers confront a grim reality: They're likely to make deep and painful cuts to a host of cherished services.

In city halls, county board rooms and statehouses across the Washington region, lawmakers are considering far-reaching moves that five years ago would have been unthinkable: eliminating freshman sports in Fairfax County, halting some road paving in suburban Maryland and closing mental health hospitals. On Thursday, Montgomery County's chief executive proposed layoffs as part of $70 million in cuts.

In sessions that begin Wednesday, Virginia and Maryland legislators will have to close multibillion-dollar budget gaps by choosing to either raise taxes or make deep cuts to the sorts of community services that built up during times of prosperity and made the region a coveted place to live. The state-level cuts will quickly trickle down to localities, where officials will have to make the same sorts of decisions.

"What we're talking about is a reevaluation of what it means to be a core service of government," said Fairfax County Supervisor Jeff C. McKay (D-Lee), who supports a combination of program cuts and higher taxes to close the county's estimated $316 million budget gap.

Local officials in Maryland are particularly worried about funding for roads. Last year, counties did not receive nearly all of the state highway maintenance funds they were counting on and lawmakers said they are not likely to get any of that money back this year.

In Virginia, law enforcement agencies say proposed cuts could result in increased response times, a reduced police presence in neighborhoods and malls, and crowding in jails.

"When I took office 15 years ago, we didn't have school resource officers. We didn't have community policing. We didn't have our bike patrol. We didn't have a gang unit," said Loudoun County Sheriff Stephen O. Simpson. "To talk about dismantling it all now, we'll never be able to build it up again."

Also in jeopardy will be human service programs that assist the poor, disabled, mentally ill and elderly, although many lawmakers say those programs have been the most affected the past two years and cannot absorb more cuts.

Most vulnerable will be schools, which were largely protected last year because of the federal stimulus. In an example of what could be at stake, Fairfax County schools Superintendent Jack D. Dale proposed a budget last week that would increase class sizes, gut summer school, and eliminate freshman sports and foreign language instruction for elementary students. The possibilities have prompted many parents and education advocates to pressure county leaders to raise taxes.

New dynamics

Lawmakers are accustomed to dealing with budget cuts, but the dynamics this year promise to be unusual because the budget gaps are so big and because they come as lawmakers in Maryland face reelection and new Republican leadership will take over in Virginia.

There, the situation poses an immediate challenge and opportunity for incoming governor Robert F. McDonnell (R), who has said he won't raise taxes to help close a two-year, $4.2 billion shortfall, as proposed by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D).

Virginia Republicans have long said state spending is out of control, and they now have the chance to show what a pared-down government would look like. The choices they make will be closely watched nationally as Republicans try to demonstrate that they are better equipped than Democrats to shepherd the country to economic recovery.

But no matter what they cut, they are almost certain to face strong opposition from Democrats and interest groups -- and the reality that the budget has been cut substantially in the past two years.

In an election year in Maryland, a $2 billion budget gap creates the largest political risk for Democrats, who control both chambers of the General Assembly by wide margins and the governorship. The cuts could strain Democrats' relationships with key constituency groups, including labor unions, educators and environmentalists, as money for favored programs is slashed.

Republicans, such as former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who is weighing a rematch against Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), might be emboldened to take on Democrats if their handling of the budget proves unpopular. On his radio show Saturday, Ehrlich urged people to march on Annapolis on Wednesday to protest how Democrats have handled the state budget.

Beyond an inconvenience

For many area residents, the billions of dollars in shortfalls absorbed by governments region-wide have amounted to such inconveniences as fewer hours at libraries, higher fees at parks or the absence of familiar "I Voted" stickers at polling places. Elected leaders in Maryland and Virginia have largely held taxes steady. The states were helped by billions of dollars from the federal stimulus. But a majority of that money has been spent or committed, and unless Congress approves a $157 billion stimulus under consideration, they will not have that cushion in coming years.

"It's in the nature of governments that face a budget challenge that the first round or the first year of budget difficulties you do your best to do no harm. You try to avoid things like an enormous number of layoffs, or large abridgements of service, or turning away populations that depend on you," said Michael Sanderson, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties. "But the reality is that this isn't a one-year problem, and some of the worst effects are going to be apparent this year."

The effects have been muted in the District, where officials have benefited from the change in White House administrations and jobs sparked by the stimulus. But the past two years haven't been without painful decisions, and the coming year will probably bring more. In the fall, the schools chancellor made national headlines when she laid off more than 200 teachers in the middle of the academic year.

The D.C. Council raised a raft of taxes and left dozens of nonprofit groups without the earmarks they expected. Still, the city's outlook is better than those of jurisdictions in which real estate taxes are the primary source of revenue and home values took a substantial hit.

In Montgomery, officials said residents ought to prepare themselves for major changes.

"I don't think Montgomery County residents have really seen the service-related impacts of our budget decisions so far. They've seen us continuing to be committed to reducing class sizes . . . and they've seen library hours unaffected. They've seen the streets maintained. They've seen the trees cut and the parks in good shape," said Nancy Floreen (D), president of the Montgomery County Council. "I think it's going to be very difficult to protect them from experiencing [more effects] this time around."

Staff writers Anita Kumar and John Wagner contributed to this report.

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