Maryland’s Budget Problem, Beyond the Talking Points

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If you’ve been following Maryland’s budget issue, you’ll know that Democrats are warning of a budget plan with hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts to things like education, law enforcement, libraries,  and state employees that is set to take effect unless the General Assembly passes a tax package in a special session, while Republicans argue that the so called “doomsday budget” actual represents a spending increase of $700 million.

At least one of them is lying, right? Or else maliciously distorting the truth. I mean, we’re talking about some pretty contradictory arithmetic, here. And with little to no explanation beyond these simple claims, what we get is not so much an argument as a partisan shouting match.

Now, I’ve got at least one thing in common with Mike Daisey, Glenn Beck, Crystal Cox, and this other guy: I’m not a journalist. So it was with great indignation as a citizen-blogger being forced to actually contact someone for a comment that I wrote to the Maryland Department of Budget and Management and asked them how Democrats could see hundreds of millions in cuts where Republicans see hundreds of millions in additional spending.

I heard back from Takirra Winfield, the governor’s deputy press secretary. She explained it to me this way:

In response to your question – the increase is $687 [million] in total funds due to an increase in special and Higher Education Funds(Education Trust Fund, higher ed tuition increases, MDOT and other special fund Capital monies).

The State’s total fund budget increased just 1.9 percent in the Governor’s budget proposal, but that’s misleading. That 1.9 percent figure reflects growth in things like the increased number of wastewater infrastructure projects we’re doing and increased funds we receive from the federal government to provide safety net and health care services to our most vulnerable citizens.

When you look at the State’s General Fund budget — that’s the core State budget that reflects our priorities of public safety, public health, and public education, probably most akin to a household’s budget where families make choices on how to spend their money, our proposed General Fund budget actually declined $56M compared to last year. And that reduction comes on the heels of eliminating more than 5500 positions since 2007 and cutting billions in recent years.

Coming as it does from the office of the governor, it’s a partisan explanation, but it’s a little more in-depth and actually addresses the opposing argument: the nearly $700 million increase that Republicans are referring to is true of the “total fund budget,” but much of that is money from the federal government, and it’s earmarked for specific projects, whereas the “General Fund budget” saw a $56 million decline. And further that any increase or decrease in the current state budget ought to be understood in a context of a declining budget since 2007.

For a worthy rebuttal to that argument, I’ll refer to The Washington Post. It’s the opinion of the editorial board that some of what the “doomsday budget” cuts should stay cut, and that the Democrats really bear the responsibility for the crummy budget, having deliberately designed the $500 million in cuts “to be distasteful to Democrats and the interest groups that support them.”

I’ll admit I wonder how Maryland’s very empowered Democratic party could be up in arms about the budget they ultimately made for themselves.

Okay, it’s still not the whole story, but it’s a start.

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