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C. Fraser Smith: The politics of the ‘Doomsday budget’

They called it the Doomsday budget. It got plenty of advance notice.

It would be a spending plan for the next fiscal year balanced by cuts alone. With no new tax revenue, in other words.

No one wants more or higher taxes. And in Annapolis this year, there’s a tax proposal behind every early-blooming bush on Lawyers Mall.

Everyone wants the services government provides, but there’s this somewhat unchallenged notion that we can have them for free. Everybody knows costs go up, but …

So, the doomsday authors thought, let’s just show everyone what a stripped-down budget would look like.

An old magazine editor I knew years ago had another way of describing such efforts:

“Fireman First,” was the approach he had seen year after year in government agencies. Firemen were stand-ins for just about everything government does. “Firemen,” of course, has the advantage of getting your attention.

If you were a mayor faced with a choice between raising taxes and cutting the budget, you could lay off firemen and close a fire station or two. Suddenly the outcry against taxes became a bit muted.

There’s a difference this time around though in Maryland. It’s not a game of budget chicken. Some very important things people have wanted and lawmakers have provided will be lost if Doomsday dawns.

Potential virtues

Maryland’s situation was outlined this week by Warren G. Deschenaux, the legislature’s chief budget officer. He took the grim reality to the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.

Without new revenue, he said, the state would probably have to cut potentially lifesaving stem cell research. At first glance, this might seem a bit abstract, off in the distance. Without funding, though, potential cures would be pushed way down the road. The firemen in this program are trying to find ways to extend life.

The deep cuts would also eliminate community tax credits for bio tech and sustainable communities. Are these expendable objectives? Maybe so, but useful to think about. Doomsday may have its potential virtues.

The doomsday list also included potential reductions in funding for higher education — 10 percent across the board.

“Inevitably,” Deschenaux added, “[Doomsday] would result in higher tuitions, higher fees, larger classes and other undesirable outcomes.”

Five hundred workers could be laid off.

Cost-of-living adjustments would have to be deferred …

“State employees have not received a cost-of-living increase since 2009 and were furloughed in fiscal years 2009, which took back the cost-of-living increase, in 2010 and 2011,” he said.

The cutting tool would be applied as well to local government, which gets $307 million in state aid. This would cost Baltimore $59 million, Prince George’s County, $77 million and Baltimore County, about $20 million.

‘No mas’

As Deschenaux went on, you could almost hear the committee members murmuring “No mas, no mas.”

Baltimore’s Sen. Nathaniel McFadden said the cuts would cut into core services.

Well, yeah. That realization would be the point of the exercise.

Here’s the truth: Doomsday’s been coming for a decade or more. The cost of things like K-12 public education wasn’t covered from the start. And Marylanders got a 10 percent tax cut at the same time the assembly agreed to spend billions more on education.

The Doomsday budget’s author, Senator Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., told the committee that he and his budget advisers had found no easy answers.

“We’ve looked at it and looked at it and looked at it,” he said.

There’s little flexibility. No place to go for the money. The counties are already asked to take $239 million of the slack.

I smell smoke.

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