One day after outgoing Democratic Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) took the first steps toward addressing Maryland's budget crisis, a spokesman for Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) warned that much deeper cuts are yet to come.
"Governor Glendening has taken some small steps forward and has left the rest of the mess up to us," said Ehrlich spokesman Paul Schurick. "He made very little progress on the fundamental need, which is to shrink the size and cost of state government.
For several weeks, Ehrlich and a team of advisers have been meeting with legislative leaders and scouring the state's $21 billion budget for programs that can be trimmed, Schurick said. Any specific budget proposal, however, won't be ready until January.
While Ehrlich and Glendening have focused their energies on cutting spending and tapping reserve funds, interest groups and state employees began pressing lawmakers to find other ways to balance the state's books -- such as by raising taxes.
The campaign began in earnest yesterday when a standing-room-only crowd of about 300 packed an Annapolis hearing room to address a special commission studying Maryland's worst budget crisis since the recession of the early 1990s.
For hours, a stream of speakers outlined the needs the state already fails to meet and predicted dire consequences if the budget is balanced by slashing spending. Many in attendance were state employees and union members, openly worried that lawmakers would cut their salaries -- or their jobs.
"We're hardworking, underpaid state employees who already feel like the working poor," said Michelle Shaw, 30, a child-welfare supervisor with the Department of Social Services in Baltimore."
Michelle Kirkland, also a Baltimore social worker, feared that anticipated budget cuts would disproportionately hurt poor people under her care. She predicted bigger caseloads.
"All sorts of people are already suffering out there," she said.
Some lawmakers said they were sympathetic, but emphasized that they would have to find savings somewhere. As outgoing Senate Budget and Tax Committee Chairman Barbara A. Hoffman (D-Baltimore) put it, the mantra over the coming months will be, "Don't cut me, don't cut me, cut the man behind the tree."
The upcoming budget battle is of particular concern to groups such as organized labor, which supported Ehrlich's Democratic opponent, Lieutenant Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. They are scrambling to build a political bridge to Maryland's first Republican governor in more than three decades.
Some are identifying so-called "corporate welfare" tax loopholes for elimination. About 60 groups have come together under a new umbrella group called the Alliance to Invest in Maryland.
The coalition hopes to sway the public, if not the new governor, that the solution to the state's crisis is to raise taxes and fees. Steve Hill, a group spokesman, pointed to long waiting lists for services for the developmentally disabled and the closure of mental health clinics around the state as examples of the problems that could be exacerbated by further cuts.
"We have a crisis, but we didn't get here by spending too much money," he said. "We got here from having an inadequate funding structure."
But Ehrlich promised during the campaign that he would oppose raising the state's income or sales taxes. The governor-elect plans a push to narrow the budget gap by legalizing slot machine gambling in Maryland, although even the most optimistic analysts say that will not raise nearly enough money to solve the problem. While Ehrlich hasn't categorically ruled out other "revenue enhancers" such as increased licensing fees, his spokesman made clear that there was no "easy or painless way out of this."
"They can try what they will but one thing I know is not going to happen is state government will not get bigger," Schurick said.
Many Democrats seemed willing to follow Ehrlich's lead.
"There are a lot of people saying, 'Don't cut services, raise taxes,' " said state Sen. Thomas McLain Middleton (D-Charles), who will chair the Senate Finance Committee. "But that is not going to be my first impulse. I'm going to look to the governor-elect's leadership."
The state faces a $500 million budget deficit, and Ehrlich is predicting that next year's gap could exceed $1.3 billion. Glendening has asked most state agencies to cut 5 percent from their budgets over the remaining six months of the fiscal year, saving an estimated $172 million, and proposed a number of other one-time fixes that include dipping into the state's rainy day fund, something Ehrlich is wary of doing.
Warren Deschenaux, director of the state's nonpartisan Office of Policy Analysis, said that until agency heads outline cuts, it's premature to discuss the potential impact.
But some agencies were already wincing at the prospect of whittled-down spending. The University System of Maryland, for instance, will be forced to pare its budget this year by 3.5 percent, or $42.5 million, said spokesman Chris Hart.
Though Glendening's plan does little to address the problems looming down the road, advocates were already complaining about the pain those initial cuts might cause.
Barbara Bellack, the executive director of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill's Maryland chapter, is worried that the state will close psychiatric hospitals without addressing how those displaced should receive treatment.
Environmentalists are also concerned. "As it is right now, the Department of the Environment has nowhere near the inspectors on staff to be able to monitor the polluters that they are supposed to regulate," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director for 1000 Friends of Maryland.