The announcement last week that the state government has been taking in considerably more money than it expected couldn't have come at a nicer time for Maryland's acting governor, Blair Lee III.
With a $60 million surplus in pocket, left over from the fiscal year that ended last June, and with the prospect of another $68 million surplus revenues coming in by the end of fiscal 1979, Lee had the perfect opportunity last week to play Santa Claus - a role any 1978 gubernatorial candidate would find hard to resist.
So, at his press conference last week, Lee indulged himself, announcing his intentions to hand out a large boxful of financial sugarplums - to the state's employees, to the state's poor, to the state's college students and to the state's taxpayers.
Although Lee said he would refuse to meddle with the state sales tax, which last year was raised to 5 per cent, he did say he was interested in reducing the two state taxes which, in his words, could be "fine-tuned" - the property tax and the income tax.
To help income taxpayers, Lee said, he would like to see the state's allowable standard deduction, which is now $500, raised to $1,500, a move which he hoped would cost the state no more than $20 million.
To ease the property tax burden, Lee indicate he supported a proposal put forward by the Barnes Commission, or "a close appromixation" of the commission's recommendation.
The commission recently recommended that the state supplement its existing aid to education payments with a new per pupil payment to local governments. This measure would reduce, in some jurisdictions, the amount of education costs that must be financed through local property taxes. The estimated cost of the proposal: $25 million.
Having finished handing out presents to the taxpayers, Lee indicated that some of the projected budget surplus could be use to fatten state employees' cost-of-living pay raises this year. Instead of the 3.5 per cent he had been talking about, Lee said, the employees might receive a 44.5 or even 5 per cent increase.
Then came the students' turn. Lee would like to put enough money in state college budgets and the University of Maryland budget so the schools would "lay off (tuition increases) for a year."
At the same time, he would increase the amounts now going to welfare recipients in the Aid to Families with Dependent Children Program.
This windfall which allowed Lee to step into the role of gift-giver derived largely from the unexpectedly high revenues generated by the state lottery and - among other things - from the improving consumer activity in the state, which boosted the sales tax revenues higher than bad been expected.
It would seem that the man who is gearing up to run for the Democratic gubernational nomination could hardly ask for anything better than a chance to distribut this unexpected largesse. But some political observes warn that the existence of the surplus could potentially harm Lee as well as help him.
"On the advantage side, you can do a great many things for a great many people," said Lee's political adviser Frank de Filippo. "But you've got to be damn careful. What you give to one group is what another group isn't getting."
State Delegate Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Baltimore City) added that "if (Lee) falls victim to the temptation of trying to please every special interest group, he may start by making people happy and end by making them unhappy."
Cardin, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, added that since voters seem to be increasingly wary of government that tries to do too much. Lee could run a substantial risk if he tried to put the surplus to too many different uses.
Lee also will have to see that his plans for the surplus prevail over the pet plans of state legislators. Senate President Steny L. Hoyer (D-Prince George's) has already suggested his own plan for property tax relief, recommending that the property tax break called the circuit-breaker, which is now given to senior citizens, be extended in part to all property owners.
And some conservatives already have suggested repealing last year's 1 per cent hike in the state sales tax - a move that Lee and Hoyer, both Democratic gubernatorial candidates, oppose.
Even with the potential pitfalls, howere, "I don't think there's any doubt that this surplus is a tremendous benefit to the incumbent governor," Hoyer said. And Frank deFiluppo added and understated agreement: "Yes, a budget surplus can be a political advantage, a convenience in a election year."