The last two Maryland General Assembly sessions were like hockey fights: lots of bloody noses, cut eyes and trash talk, but no resolution of the issue that brought on the mayhem in the first place. When the General Assembly meets again, the chronic structural budget deficit that makes it impossible for the state to meet its funding commitments will make an unwelcome return. No matter how many times the combatants throw down their gloves and square off between now and then, that reckoning will arrive right on time.
This year's budget was balanced using accounting tricks and a one-time increase in a host of user fees -- an approach akin to paying your MasterCard bill by using your Visa card. State officials and representatives who passed the budget know that. So why do it?
Some would say that they had no choice because the slots bill failed again. Others would argue that because the slots bill dominated the session, time ran out for the governor and the legislature to address the problem of revenue streams that are inadequate to meet immediate obligations. Still others would claim that the voters are to blame. After all, they elected a governor who promised he would not raise taxes along with legislators who historically have showered them with expensive entitlements and public projects.
Regardless of what camp suits your thinking, the result is the same: Maryland is stuck in the mud up to its bumpers.
Through all this, everyone argues that his or her way is the best way to "invest in Maryland's future."
Recently, for example, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan joined other Montgomery County Democrats and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) in urging Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) to sign legislation that would raise the corporate income tax rate by 10 percent for three years and use the funds to cap tuition increases at state universities. Busch spoke of the need to preserve the quality of higher education to maintain a well-trained workforce. Duncan said a cap would "ease the painful burden borne by families."
Nice words, but they don't withstand even mild scrutiny in a time of vast budget deficits and pressing fiscal requirements.
Are families paying state college tuitions more deserving than children taught in trailers because Maryland can't fund school construction? Or are the children trapped in a dysfunctional juvenile services agency more deserving?
Isn't tuition cost containment the job of those who manage the university system? When did corporations doing business in Maryland become the designated buffers for rising tuition costs? And if tuition costs continue to increase for the next decade, will the tax still be repealed in three? Don't bet on it. Subsidize failure, and you get more failure.
Public goods are things and services paid for and consumed by the general public. A public good provided to one must be provided to all. If scarcity constrains or prevents that effort, then choices have to be made. Either fund everyone equally or cut benefits equally. Because the governor and the legislature obviously have had difficulty doing this, the decision should be turned over to the voters in a November referendum.
During the General Assembly session, of all the budget solutions aired, the boldest was Busch's plan to raise taxes by almost $1 billion. Not surprisingly, his proposal died. But rather than spend the summer arguing about a slots referendum, why not use the speaker's plan to arrive at a bottom line on funding state obligations and critical budget items? Once that figure is agreed to, let the governor fund his budget in whole or in part by using revenue from slot machines. His plan could describe whether public or private concerns would own the gambling operations and how the money would be divided; whether to include racetrack owners; and where the facilities would be located.
Busch could do the same, funding his budget in whole or in part with elements from his original bill, relying exclusively on revenue sources that he claims are better than slots. Put the Ehrlich and Busch plans before voters in November.
In a presidential election year, voter turnout should be huge and the fight fierce. The referendum would give all voters immediate and meaningful participation in the future of Maryland.
Unlike the last statewide election, voters would not be able to indulge in wishful thinking. The referendum also would encourage elected officials to stay the chosen course over the long term.
Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. For two years, all attempts to solve the budget predicament have failed. It's time to take this one to the people.