Life is full of little ironies. So also is the Maryland budget. Three years ago, Maryland, like 43 other states, had a deficit driven by the bursting of the dot-com bubble. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), then a gubernatorial candidate, accused the outgoing administration of Parris N. Glendening of engaging in a "scorched-earth spending spree." Republicans called the Democratic governor "Parris Spendening."
But what became of all that "scorched earth" spending? Did Ehrlich reduce "Spendening" spending levels? Hardly. If you accept the doubtful premise that Glendening's spending was "scorched earth," then Ehrlich's spending has reached incendiary levels.
When he left office, Glendening's final general-fund budget proposal was $10.4 billion. Ehrlich's baseline general-fund budget this year is expected to be $3.2 billion higher than that, an increase of almost one-third in just three years. During this period, Ehrlich has ignored state spending affordability guidelines.
For years, Republicans in Maryland campaigned on the need to rein in state spending. Since Ronald Reagan was president, it has been a GOP shibboleth that government at all levels is riddled with "waste, fraud and abuse." But after three years in control of the governorship, Ehrlich's budgets implicitly acknowledge that state spending is not easily cut and that governments tend to spend what they take in.
The initial Republican apologia for Ehrlich's spending will be to blame the Democratic legislature. This is a constitutional impossibility. Maryland's governors enjoy more expansive budget powers than any of the nation's 49 other state chief executives. With limited exception, no state spending can occur without first being proposed by the governor. The biggest exception has been mandated funding, such as the Thornton aid-to-education formula -- and Ehrlich declined to sign or veto that when it was presented to him for reaffirmation.
Today's spending levels are the products of Republican budgets. Two decades ago, Ellen R. Sauerbrey, twice the Republican gubernatorial nominee before Ehrlich, pushed for state spending limits, recognizing the dynamic that spending rises to meet anticipated revenue. In response, the legislature created voluntary spending guidelines, which it sends to the governor each year.
Last year, Ehrlich ignored the legislature's guideline. He submitted a budget $165 million larger than the legislature's recommendation, a practice not unknown to Glendening. The Democratic legislature subsequently cut $160 million from Ehrlich's proposed budget to bring spending close to the affordability limit.
The Ehrlich administration's own "spending spree" is driven by record revenue increases. Among many other ironies, state tax collections under Ehrlich have experienced the largest single increase in modern state history. Revenue collection in the state general fund has jumped a record $1.4 billion in three years.
Some of this revenue increase comes from action taken by Ehrlich, including $165 million derived from an increase in the state property tax and $250 million in new fees. State corporations paid a one-time increase of $162 million when the legislature closed corporate tax loopholes. This increase, of course, does not include the $750 million in state revenue Maryland would have received under Ehrlich's proposed slot machine legislation, which has failed for three successive years.
But most of the $1 billion surplus is driven by the same factors that drove the Glendening deficit -- shifts in the national economy, far beyond the control of state government. Ehrlich did not create the 2005 economic boom any more than Glendening created the 2002 recession. Indeed, Ehrlich has noted correctly that "government doesn't create jobs."
Does this make Ehrlich a reckless spender? No more than was Glendening, whose failings as governor occurred mostly outside the budget books. It does, however, give the lie to historic GOP criticisms of Democratic spending, just as Republican spending nationally has done.
Governors either manage budgets or budgets manage them. The challenge Ehrlich faces is that mandated spending, mostly in the form of aid to public schools and Medicaid, predictably has cannibalized the rest of the budget. Huge increases in school aid and Medicaid spending have driven historically high cuts to higher education, resulting in 40 percent tuition increases.
The Ehrlich administration has cut more than 3,000 jobs from the budget, but some agencies, such as the corrections department, complain about prisons being understaffed and their guards poorly paid. Indeed, the state has had such difficulty recruiting prison guards at $28,000 per year that it is offering $1,000 signing bonuses. But with poverty-level wages, the state will get what it pays for -- in its prisons and elsewhere.
In the meantime, overall state spending continues to increase. After three years in office, Republicans are learning the realities of the state budget. In doing so, they are forfeiting the right to complain about Democratic spending levels.
The writer, a lawyer in Greenbelt, served for 16 years as a Democratic member of the Maryland legislature. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.