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Senate panel to receive analysis of ‘doomsday’ budget

It is unlikely the General Assembly would seriously consider a so-called doomsday budget proposal consisting of no new revenue streams and more than $1 billion in cuts, a public policy expert said Monday.

“It’s not like this is the first year there have been budget issues,” said Phil Joyce, a University of Maryland School of Public Policy professor. “In many states, lots of the easy cuts have already been taken. It becomes more and more difficult to close a gap based only on cutting spending if you’ve been cutting spending for a number of years.

“If there was fat out there to cut, you’d cut it.”

The Senate Budget and Taxation Committee will hear an analysis of an all-cuts budget by the Department of Legislative Services Tuesday morning in Annapolis. The state must close a projected $1.1 billion budget deficit this session.

Sen. David R. Brinkley, R-Carroll and Frederick, said the unusual timing of Tuesday’s briefing — which will pull committee members out of caucus meetings — shows that lawmakers are giving serious consideration to the doomsday scenario.

“I think there’s certainly some areas there I could be supportive of,” said Brinkley, one of three Republicans on the 13-member committee. “The idea is, we can balance the budget without raising taxes. This might be an honest attempt to find deductions.”

But Joyce said he doubted a General Assembly controlled by Democrats would pass an all-cuts budget. If the legislature were controlled by Republicans, he said, the story might be different.

“If you told me that Nebraska or Utah was proposing this, I’d say OK,” Joyce said. “But in Maryland, it strikes me that you would be more likely to see … something that’s balanced between spending cuts and tax increases.”

Joyce said a proposal containing all cuts could be reviewed just to show the wide-ranging negative impact such a budget would have. Once lawmakers see what services would have to be cut to make such a budget work, that could be used to force the legislature to seriously consider new revenue sources.

For some, the all-cuts proposal could serve as a wake-up call, Joyce said.

“It’s easy to say we’re not going to raise revenues if you don’t know what the effect of not raising revenues would be,” Joyce said. “[They’ll realize] ‘if we don’t pass revenues, look at all the bad things that are going to happen.’”

Brinkley said Senate leadership was banking on members giving into that “threat.” Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, D-Calvert and Prince George’s, has said all budget options are still on the table, but that the chamber could move forward with the doomsday plan if members cannot agree on new revenues. Brinkley predicted few would be happy following Tuesday’s briefing.

“[There will be] very long faces. Not mine, necessarily,” Brinkley said. “They’re giving a clear choice. In the past, I had offered some of these choices. It’s going to take some changes across the board.”

Shifting teacher pension costs to local jurisdictions, for example, could free up a great deal of resources, even if that shift was made over a period of years instead of all at once.

“It moves us in the right direction, and it does soften the blow on the counties,” Brinkley said. “They can anticipate it and they can budget it later.”

Brinkley said the state’s deficit could not be closed simply by trimming “fat” from the budget.

“It might not be that there’s fat … if it’s your program, there’s never fat,” Brinkley said. “But it does call for a reprioritizing of state spending. There’s the ‘want to haves’ versus the ‘got to haves.’”