FORGET THE CHAMPAGNE, but there is every promise that the 1981 session of the Maryland legislature will meet its financial expectations -- because they're lower than they've been in years. For the first time in recent memory, "surplus" is not in the working glossary. The legislators will have to study whatever Gov. Harry Hughes presents in the way of a budget a week from today as much for what is not in it as for what is. Therein lie some new challenges for local governments.
There are a number of ways to pass along the burdens of austerity to the localities, and Gov. Hughes has them all at the ready. For example, he has been considering eliminating $40 million in grants to local governments. That would mean the end of an arrangement that reimburses subdivisions for 11 cents of the state's 20-cent property tax rate.Who would stand to lose the most? Start with Montgomery County, followed by Baltimore County, Prince George's, Anne Arundel and Baltimore City.
If you're also guessing that there are enough votes there to block the grant-cutting, consider guessing again. It may turn out that state lawmakers would go along, rather than cut other, more specific state programs. Similarly, Gov. Hughes as well as the legislators may take political comfort in holding the line on state tax increases. That could mean increases in local taxes. As in Richmond, there will be the not-so-slight matter of transportation finances, too -- from roads to rails. Without strong direction fromt the governor, a scramble for dollars could rekindle old urban-rural disputes that could spill over into other legislative issues.
The great hope is that when the revenue estimators issue their report in March, they will have discovered more than they anticipated in income- and sales-tax collections. But for now the accent in Annapolis and around the state had best be on retrenchment.