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C. Fraser Smith: Budget battle; Hurtful cuts vs. gimmicks

Have you noticed the new war of words in Annapolis? It’s just a little war, but the verbal projectiles are launched with a political purpose.

The outbreak of hostilities centers on what will be one of the most intense struggles of the 2015 legislative session: the budget.

An example: Republicans say they are out to offer an honestly balanced budget — this in comparison to what they call the gimmick-based budgets of Democrats.

Gimmicks tend to be fiscal or accounting sleights of hand. Gimmicks temporize. Gimmicks hide the dimensions of the problem. Honestly balanced budgets are thought to be direct, aimed at instantly cutting spending.

We can see the difference already:

– Gov. Larry Hogan proposes $157 million in K-12 and community college spending. Democrats suggest the balancing job could be done just as honestly over two years. That idea is temporizing, a cousin of the gimmick often referred to as kicking the can down the road.

– Ending a program offering medical care to pregnant women with incomes just over $36,000.

The latter cut would save $9 million in Maryland’s discretionary budget. Look for this proposal to become a political football. (One wonders why such an obvious political target would have been offered — as a bargaining chip, perhaps).

The governor’s budget for fiscal year 2016 eliminates Medicaid eligibility for pregnant women in families whose income falls between 185 and 200 percent of the federal poverty level. That means that a young couple who make more than $36,612 who become pregnant would have to pay for their coverage.

Not such an outrage, perhaps. But this is one of the moments when the difference between Democrats and Republicans is clear. Advocates say any coverage such a family could afford is likely to be much less comprehensive than Medicaid benefits and is also likely to require more out-of-pocket costs.

Democrats would argue that providing high quality coverage saves the state money in the long run: fewer expensive, uncompensated hospital visits. Also, financial barriers to accessing timely prenatal care can have adverse life-long impact on the health of the child and the mother.

Just ending the program was apparently thought to be better than finding something else to cut — or finding a way to pay for the program. Something called the Healthy Maryland Initiative proposes an increase of $1 in the state’s tobacco tax. Sponsored over the years with great success, this is the brainchild of Vincent DeMarco and Health Care for All.

And then there are the issues of spending on public education. One result? A $143 million haircut for public schools across the board. Baltimore’s share of the trim: $35 million. Before Maryland senators this week, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake called the governor’s opening salvo hurtful and counterproductive.

“Our school system,” she said, has improved. “… It’s not the time to change course.”

Baltimore Del. Sandy Rosenberg immediately joined the mayor’s protest. In a blog post, he observed a headline touting budget-balancing “without gimmicks.”

“But at what cost? he asked.

“Does a $157 million cut to K-12 classes and community colleges put our education system at risk?

“Would that cut diminish our attractiveness to businesses that need an educated work force? Would it affect their employees who want a quality education for their children?

“There is no Democratic alternative yet that would make the spending reductions elsewhere, but there will be.

“The decisions we will make on spending priorities and public education policy,” he said, “are what governing is about.”

What we are seeing, of course, is more than a war of words. It’s a clash between Democratic and Republican approaches to government. One question: Do the voters, through their elected representatives, care as much about the immediate end of budget deficits as they do about a maintaining quality health care and public education?

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in the Daily Record. His email address is fsmith@wypr.org.