THE WORD from Annapolis is that something called "David Stockman Fever" -- a malady marked by frenzied activity often causing deep financial cuts and political brusies -- has been raging through a House budget committee. So far, afflicted members have made mincemeat out of the state budget proposal sent them by Gov. Harry Hughes. At last count, the committee had cut $50 million in about three days, which is quite a clip -- for times more than it normally trims. Is this cause for concern?
As some of the fiscal doctors in the House are quick (and right) to note. "Stockman Fever" comes in many different strains, none of which need be fatal and some of which may prove positively thereapeutic. The danger in Annapolis is that those who are doing the cutting on the House side may be banking on the Senate to put the budget back together again; and if the fever spreads to that chamber, the people throughout the state could be hurting: so far, the big targets have been the proposed spending for welfare, hospitals and Medicaid.
One healthy sign so far is that Gov. Hughes may actually stand up and lobby for his own proposals. Up to now, he has been content to lob measures into the air and then duck behind a hedge to see how they land in the legislature. The House committee action has him saying now that he will lobby for the full amounts he had requested, with emphasis on the welfare and Medicaid spending.
It is precisely this kind of sales job that Gov. Hughes should have been doing all along. The spirit of retrenchment is real across the legislative land; sensitive politicians are looking for detailed justifications when spending proposals come before them. Lawmakers know all too well that any budget contains some fiscal fluff, since they, too, have done a little budget-stuffing in their day. If Gov. Hughes' proposals are genuinely tight and sensible -- and there's some reason to believe so -- he will have to make the case, including explaining exactly what he has in mind in the way of additional revenues if the March estimates come in low.
At a press conference last week, the governor described his spending measure as "a very, very tight budget," adding that "I spent from September until Christmas Eve . . . on it." Now, if he wants it to survive overzealous surgeons in the legislature, Gov. Hughes had best spend from now until those madcap closing hours of the session making as many House call as he can.