Despite a recent drumbeat of gloom-and-doom predictions, Maryland and Virginia residents will see few immediate cuts in government services caused by the Washington area's economic slowdown, state and local officials say.
Government leaders around the Capital Beltway said last week that basic services such as education and public safety are not being affected by rounds of highly publicized budget-cutting in Richmond and Annapolis. So far, they say, financial shortfalls are being offset by selective reductions or by postponing planned improvements.
"The cuts this year will not create a major impact on lifestyles," said Fairfax County Executive J. Hamilton Lambert. "The term we've used before is 'manageable cuts.' The question is whether this is a onetime thing or whether it will get more serious next year."
Suburban officials say their jurisdictions are in better financial shape than the District, which faces the prospect of lingering deficits not caused by the economy. They say Virginia and Maryland residents are unlikely to feel a serious pinch unless the economy continues to spiral downward and deeper cuts become necessary next year.
"The last several years have been unusual because we have not had a lot of pressure on the revenue side," said Robert K. Kendal , Montgomery County's director of management and budget. "It's been almost an easy kind of budget-making. Now we have the prospect of bigger gaps to close. We'll all be nervous in the spring."
All the Washington region's governments are suffering from an economic slowdown that has shaken both the private and public sectors up and down the Eastern Seaboard. A flat real estate market and slow growth rate have cut into tax collections, forcing governments to survive on less money than they expected only a few months ago.
That problem is compounded in the District by what critics say is a bloated public payroll and inefficient bureaucracy.
According to recent estimates, the District will overspend this year's $3 billion annual budget by $100 million, the worst case of red ink in a decade. An independent commission analyzing the District budget said in a draft report that the city could reduce its work force by more than 6,000 workers -- about one out of every eight on the payroll.
In Maryland and Virginia, there do not appear to be similar structural problems. "These governments are essentially healthy," said Philip M. Dearborn, director of the Maryland Governor's Commission on State Taxes and Tax Structure. "They have to adjust their commitments to meet economic conditions."
Of the two states, Virginia appears to be hurting more. Gov. L. Douglas Wilder has announced plans to trim $1.4 billion from a two-year budget of $26 billion, but almost two-thirds of the cuts are not scheduled to take effect until next year. Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer has proposed cutting $150 million from this year's $11.5 billion budget.
In Virginia, a few targeted budget cuts will reach the public soon. Tuitions will rise at state colleges and universities, for example, and roadside welcome centers are being closed. But officials already are backing away from some dire predictions. After initial concern that many highway construction projects in Northern Virginia would be delayed, a particularly sensitive prospect for traffic-weary commuters, Virginia officials decided to concentrate transportation cuts in other parts of the state.
In Maryland, the potential cuts look relatively mild. Schaefer has ordered a state hiring freeze and has clamped down on travel. Montgomery County is considering delaying vehicle purchases, and Prince George's County will likely slow plans to hire police officers.
Suburban officials point out that, in all the governments, there are likely to be few layoffs and that cuts in social services programs have been minimized. Even after the reductions, virtually every government will spend more money during this budget year than last.
Several officials say they have seen similar cuts before, during economic lulls in 1982 and in the late 1970s. The economy rebounded quickly, they say, and the reductions soon were restored.
"Unless things take a turn for the worse, there's no reason for anyone to panic," Dearborn said. "There's no indication that the services the public depends on are endangered."
"This is the third one of these things I've been through," said Virginia Del. Warren G. Stambaugh (D-Arlington), a senior member of the House Finance Committee. "The cuts we're making are around the periphery. They're annoying. But people forget how much our budget has increased over the years. These cuts won't be crippling to the Commonwealth if the economy picks up."
That, others point out, is a big "if." An extended recession could force governments to undertake a major restructuring, choosing either to reduce the Washington area's traditionally high level of public services or to raise taxes at a politically difficult time. Historically, Maryland residents have been willing to shoulder a heavier tax burden than Virginians.
Alexandria City Manager Vola Lawson said she is pessimistic about the long-term outlook for local governments in the region. "This looks different" from previous brief economic lulls, Lawson said. "It may be of a longer duration than previous events. And that would require hard decisions."
Fairfax's Lambert said, "I think there's a likelihood of deeper cuts in education and transportation than people are saying later on. I don't think we are making onetime adjustments."
But despite long-run uncertainties, the impact of immediate budget cuts is likely to be limited.
"Joe Average Citizen may have to wait in line a little longer when he gets his driver's license or pay 10-bucks-a-credit more at the community college," Stambaugh said. "You can't say these things are nothing. But I'm not sure a lot of people will notice."