O'Malley's piecemeal budget cuts
Two billion, two hundred, and thirty-three million dollars.
That's the overall revenue shortage facing Gov. Martin O'Malley even after he has cut the size of Maryland's state budget not once but twice in recent months.
It is a staggering figure for such a small state. More than 15 percent of the general fund budget now must be cut.
Try deducting that from your checking account.
How big is that number?
It equals this year's combined general fund allocations for the state police, prisons, juvenile services, licensing and regulation, human resources, housing and the environment. Wipe out all of these agencies — as conservatives love to suggest — and O'Malley's budget problem would be solved.
It is the equivalent of eliminating Baltimore city's entire general fund budget for 18 months. It equates to the entire general fund budget for Montgomery County's school system for this year.
This is serious stuff.
Yet O'Malley continues to take a piecemeal approach, managing each budget crisis as it arrives by applying Band-Aids rather than implementing global changes that would avoid "death by a thousand cuts," as several of his political critics have put it.
When the Board of Revenue Estimates released its latest bleak projections last week, the governor reacted in campaign mode rather than as chief executive of a deep-in-debt enterprise.
The situation cried out for a comprehensive rescue plan. Instead, O'Malley launched a propaganda blitz focusing on how much he has done to protect "working families" and how much he already has cut from the budget since being elected.
That won't help solve today's fiscal problem. O'Malley isn't providing far-sighted leadership.
He's focusing on the politics of re-election instead of permanently fixing Maryland's severe fiscal imbalance — not enough revenue and too many costly programs. If he doesn't start to recognize the need to institute major reforms, he can look forward to similar $2 billion shortages every year of his second term.
What's required takes intestinal fortitude that many politicians lack. Here are some of the things O'Malley ought to be doing:
Overhauling the state's health care program for state employees to make it far less costly to taxpayers and more focused on preventive care;
Revamping state-run pension systems to share future costs with county governments and also with employees;
Implementing a two-month cost-effectiveness analysis of every state program to determine where sweeping budget cuts would be most effective;
Announcing an immediate series of fee increases for government services, ranging from what we pay for auto tags and tolls to what it costs to get a duplicate birth certificate or a business license;
Forming a task force to report back by Dec. 1 on how to raise additional revenue through higher taxes on tobacco, wine, liquor and items now exempt from the state sales tax;
Extending the temporary surtax on the highest earning Marylanders should be under consideration, too, but so should tax measures that would affect the rest of us.
No group should be held sacrosanct in this reform process —everyone should contribute. That includes O'Malley's "working families" as well as companies, public as well as private education, local governments as well as state agencies, big and small.
O'Malley and his allies have been searching for easy answers. Furloughs, for instance, help you get through the immediate crisis but do nothing — zero — to ease a government's long-term overspending. Downsizing, though painful to implement, provides permanent savings.
Who can blame O'Malley for trying to avoid large-scale layoffs and closing state programs that help citizens, but are hardly essential?
Yet there is a stiff political price to pay for taking a piecemeal approach to what has become a long-running budget emergency.
The governor's slow-motion response has encouraged potential opponents to think about challenging him.
If he's not careful, O'Malley could enter next summer's campaign with another $2 billion budget hole predicted for 2011. The election might then turn into a shouting match over the governor's management — or mismanagement — of Maryland's fiscal mess.
It would be smarter to get the bad news out of the way quickly. That probably requires a special General Assembly session late this year to approve fee increases, tax increases, program eliminations and pension and health care reforms.
Would this be controversial? Of course. Would O'Malley's popularity ratings suffer? Absolutely.
But it would resolve the budget crisis a year before voters go to the polls. It would buy O'Malley time to explain the logic of his proactive budget moves.
Sometimes politicians have to step out of their comfort zone. They have to take chances. They have to trust voters will understand that tax increases and fewer government services sometimes are unavoidable.
People want their elected leaders to be decisive and courageous, to be forward-thinking and to make tough calls.
In this ongoing budget crisis, O'Malley has moved incrementally to counter continuing economic decline.
He has failed to anticipate what plenty of others grasped long ago – that the nation's prolonged recession would devastate Maryland's revenue stream and require a major rethinking of which services state government can afford to deliver.
Barry Rascovar is a longtime State House columnist and a communications consultant and writer. His address is firstname.lastname@example.org.