Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes called the fiscal 1987 budget he presented last week "a carefully crafted document . . . that goes a long way to meeting pressing needs and . . . does it in a fiscally sound way."
Skeptics in the legislature have another description for the $8.2 billion spending plan, however: "blue smoke and mirrors."
Those critics are charging that Hughes, who cannot succeed himself after two terms as governor, has constructed a budget based on a clever sleight-of-hand that allows him to expand programs, resolve the lingering savings and loan crisis and avoid a tax increase -- but by foisting potentially heavy costs onto budgets to be shaped by future decision makers.
Although Hughes and his aides, as well as some legislative leaders, vigorously dispute this criticism, some lawmakers have already vowed to fight key aspects of the spending proposals.
And although it is unclear how deep the opposition goes, they said it is wide enough to create a conflict with Hughes that could set the tone for the next two months of budget deliberations.
"I think you'll find that there's a lot of opposition," said state Sen. Laurence Levitan, a Montgomery County Democrat and chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee. "We're still trying to work out other alternatives."
The assembly's Republican leadership, whose grasp of fiscal matters is widely respected by members of both parties in the legislature, criticized Hughes in stronger terms, saying the plan has the potential to pass on to the next administration and taxpayers "a legacy of fiscal inadequacy, fraught with budget shortfalls, huge paybacks on borrowed funds and a commitment to expensive programs we cannot afford."
Criticism of Hughes' spending proposals is actually directed at two separate but related issues, the $8.2 billion budget for fiscal 1987, which begins July 1, and a plan to give depositors at Old Court Savings & Loan Association access to funds frozen there since May, when the runs began that sparked the months-long crisis in Maryland's thrift industry.
The budget creates 1,800 new jobs and contains some substantial increases in employe salaries and social programs such as housing, welfare and community-based facilities for the mentally retarded.
The legislature must approve the budget but has limited say over the depositor plan. That plan has sparked the most concern locally because it would be funded in large part by a $100 million transfer from the Transportation Trust Fund, which is set up to pay for road construction and improvement.
The $1.8 billion transportation trust fund, funded by gas tax revenues and other fees related to automobile use, is a program that is uniformly popular because it benefits every jurisdiction in the state, in contrast to social programs based on need.
It is the state program, for example, that in dollar terms most benefits Montgomery County.
Although Hughes has pledged that he will not touch the $100 million unless lawmakers enact legislation mandating that the money be repaid by 1990, critics contend that no legislation provides an effective guarantee.
"The real question is whether future governors and future legislators will abide by an agreement we're making now," said Del. Gene Counihan (D-Montgomery).
Counihan noted that Hughes borrowed from the trust fund in 1983 and again in 1984, in part to fund the Chesapeake Bay cleanup. "We're playing around with the trust fund again and it could have a serious effect on our road-building capacity over the next decade."
Supporters of the Hughes plan, including House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Baltimore), disagree with such thinking. Cardin called the transfer an example of the "sound cash management technique" that demonstrates "the flexibility of state government."
A more widespread complaint is that Hughes is tying the hands of future officials by establishing programs this year that are likely to demand more funds in the future.
With a $38 million housing initiative, $20 million expansion of community-based facilities for the mentally retarded, and $14 million increase in educational aid, they say, Hughes is seeking voter recognition for creating new services with programs he will never have to administer, cut or raise taxes to pay for.
Thus, charged Sen. Sidney Kramer (D-Montgomery), "The governor has done two things to guarantee an increase in taxes. One is proposing a program that boosts state aid to elementary and secondary education, and the other is robbing the Transportation Trust Fund, thereby ensuring an increase in the gas tax next year. This is subterfuge; this is not a balanced budget."
This concern is particularly acute in the wake of uncertainty over the impact of pending federal cutbacks under the Gramm-Rudman deficit reduction measure.
Fiscal analysts have estimated that the state could lose millions in federal funding in fiscal 1987, much of it in social programs.
They say Hughes' budget will leave little room to absorb the shock of a substantial cutback, particularly because $70 million from the 1987 budget has been shifted to pay for savings and loan problems in the current budget under a technique called a "deficiency appropriation" that is similar to drawing an advance on salary.
House Minority Leader Robert R. Neall (R-Anne Arundel) pointed out that Hughes' efforts to create new programs is unusual for an election year, compared with Hughes' previous election budget and that of his immediate predecessor, Acting Gov. Blair Lee III.
When Hughes was seeking reelection in 1982, Neall said, the governor pushed through an increase in the gasoline tax, but used that money to replenish the Transportation Trust Fund from which he now wants to borrow. He also used surpluses that year to make substantial increases in employe salaries and in social service programs such as welfare.
But the increases also came in a year in which there were substantial federal cutbacks; Hughes successfully defended his increases in social service spending as merely providing maintenance of existing programs.
Lawmakers, who can cut but not add to the administration's budget, have nevertheless shown strong leadership in reshaping Hughes' proposals in recent years.
This year, the need to resolve the savings and loan crisis may give Hughes' proposals greater momentum.
"I have grave reservations about the trust fund transfer but what else are you going to do?" said Sen. John Coolahan (D-Baltimore County), a fiscal conservative and frequent Hughes critic. "The question is, where else are you going to raise $100 million quickly."