Los Angeles Times

No special session needed

It's a "doomsday" budget! The sky is falling! Deep, deep cuts that will destroy education, health care and public safety! The governor must call a special session — wait, make that two special sessions, at taxpayer expense, first to "fix" the budget and then to expand gambling.

The media have analyzed the politics and personalities behind the failure of Gov. Martin O'Malley, House Speaker Michael Busch, and Senate PresidentThomas V. Mike Miller to come to agreement on tax increases, special fund transfers and gambling proposals. But they've written little about the "doomsday" budget itself, or the true purpose of a special session.

Ironically, what the media and Democratic politicians call the doomsday budget increases total state spending from $34.7 billion to $35.3 billion, a $600 million (2 percent) rise in spending. That's hardly austere. State education (K-12) spending increases by $199 million, higher education funding by $82.4 million, medical assistance funding by $183.6 million, and public safety by $23.2 million.

Dedicated funds like Program Open Space, the Transportation Trust Fund, and the Chesapeake Bay Restoration funds are fully utilized for their intended purposes; there is no "raiding" or transfers of these special funds, as in other budget proposals. There are no tax increases. For the first time in years, general fund expenditures will not exceed general fund income, and Maryland's structural deficit will be reduced by 51 percent.

Why have you read so much about "doomsday" cuts when spending is increasing? Because most media simply repeat the Orwellian claims of liberal Democrats without validating them. A spending increase is a cut unless it increases spending by as much or more than they want. For example, the higher education budget is $82.4 million more than last year, but that's a "cut" because the governor wanted to spend $120 million more than last year.

Another tactic (confuse them if you can't convince them) is to claim that spending decreased for an item in the General Fund budget, even if it actually increased when special and federal funds are also considered. That's why it's important to keep your eye on the ball and look at total spending. They may be different funds, but they all come out of your pocket.

Governor O'Malley's proposed a $35.9 billion budget that spent $600 million more than the "doomsday" budget. His budget was contingent on income tax increases, reductions to homeowners' mortgage interest tax deductions, and "transferring" (taking) money from dedicated funds like Program Open Space. Democrats supported his budget but swapped a decrease in personal tax exemptions for Mr. O'Malley's mortgage interest reduction. Both proposals increased income taxes.

The Republican minority proposed a "level headed, level funded" budget that held spending to last year's $34.7 billion total. It had no tax increases, spent $600 million less than the doomsday budget, and was rejected by the Democrats.

Before House Democrats could pass their package of tax increases, midnight fell, and the General Assembly's legislative session ended. Contingency language in the budget reduced spending automatically. The doomsday budget was enacted by default.

The only reason for Governor O'Malley to call a special session is to raise taxes. But for most of us, is the juice worth the squeeze? Mr. O'Malley has relentlessly pursued increasing the gas tax. A deal to increase gas taxes, income taxes and expand casino gambling intoPrince George's Countycould very well be the real cost of a special session (and a potential second special session over the summer).

No budget is perfect, but let not the perfect be the enemy of the good. The "doomsday" budget is that rarest of all occurrences in government: compromise. It increases spending by $600 million more than Republicans wanted, reduces Governor O'Malley's budget by $600 million; and spares working families from yet another round of tax increases, while adequately funding core government services.

Benjamin Franklin wisely noted, "Neither, life, liberty, nor property is ever safe when the legislature is in session." That's particularly true in Maryland, and it perfectly summarizes why even one "special" session of the General Assembly — much less two such sessions — is an especially bad idea.

Del. Herb McMillan, an Annapolis Republican, represents District 30 in the Maryland House of Delegates. His email is herbmcmillan@verizon.net.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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