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C. Fraser Smith: Governing by compromise, not fiat

Many advise against watching the legislative process — famously likening it to the making of sausage. But so far this year, the product in Maryland might look more like prime rib — relatively speaking, of course.

Over the last four years or longer in Annapolis, crafting a budget has been a tour de force of patching, filling, shifting and borrowing.

There have been real cuts, to be sure, but deep pain has been avoided.

Every year has seemed like it must be the last for that kind of rescue. Won’t there be a point beyond which the cannibalizing of government programs must end? Maybe, but not this year.

While Wisconsin and Ohio find themselves looking at the recall of governors and lawmakers, Maryland is escaping any such upheaval. Unions here actually talk about their good relationship with elected officials

Workable accommodations

What accounts for such harmony? A few things.

Maryland is and has been a worker-friendly state.

It doesn’t face the huge deficits confronting other states.

Gov. Martin O’Malley promised no more furloughs in a contract deal with the major state worker unions.

And he pushed the heavy budget lifting onto the House of Delegates and the state Senate this year, declining to propose new taxes while inviting lawmakers to raise them if they dared.

To ask citizens for more of their income, given the recession and national anti-tax and anti-government mood, no doubt seemed impolitic — unless the increased costs could be written off as sin taxes (as in the proposed increase in alcohol taxes) or labeled fees.

These arguments have allowed the two houses to reach what appear to be workable accommodations on spending for the fiscal year beginning July 1. It took more imaginative shifting and slicing and dicing and cutting, but it appears to be working.

What Wisconsin has done almost by fiat, Maryland has done by negotiating.

An elegant balance

Compromise on state worker pensions and health care coverage appears to have achieved an elegant balance between the demands of workers and concerns of taxpayers. To be sure, workers were obliged to accept less or to pay more, but their representatives apparently agreed there was little choice. Collective bargaining rights were not threatened. No one provoked them by saying they were overpaid.

State employees must make a higher pension contribution — up from 5 to 7 percent of their income and the age at which retirement benefits kick in will change.

There was concern among union leaders that the agreement establishes a two-tier system: new employees would get smaller checks than workers with more time with the state.

Their leaders tried to head that off but failed. There was no takeover of the state capitol as a result.

The Association of Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees’ Sue Esty told The Baltimore Sun that AFSCME members are “taking the fall” for Wall Street. It’s an undeniable fact, isn’t it? Like everyone else in the nation, she and her union had few options other than to take the hit.

She said her organization will try to recoup this year’s losses when the economy improves. That, in essence, is what the legislature hopes to do every year — balance the budget via economic growth and tax receipts.

While officials in other states seem to enjoy the pain they are inflicting — and while the federal government careens toward a shutdown — Maryland prepares to complete its work quietly and efficiently.

If I were a meat eater, I’d say, Please pass the prime rib.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His e-mail address is [email protected]