At the top of nearly every legislator's list for the upcoming session in Annapolis is not surprisingly -- a tax cut. In 1997, the General Assembly approved a 10 percent tax cut spread out over five years. But there's mounting bipartisan support to speed up the reduction by a year or two, thereby saving Maryland taxpayers as much as $310 million.
"In these times of economic plenty, we should go ahead and implement the entire tax cut now," says Republican Senator Martin Madden.
Not so fast, says Governor Parris Glendening, a Democrat. Every tax dollar returned to citizens is a dollar shifted away from his budget priorities. Instead, Glendening prefers that the surplus "go to one-time expenditures, because you can't expect or project we'll have prosperous times ahead," says Glendening spokeswoman Michelle Byrnie.
The nation's booming economy has been very good to Maryland. State coffers are bursting at the seams with an unprecedented $1 billion budget surplus. The question, of course, is how to spend it before the economic bubble bursts.
Take education, for example. Glendening's four-year, $1 billion plan for new school construction calls for an annual appropriation of $250 million. This year, the governor would like to see more than half those funds come out of the surplus.
A legislative tug-of-war over how to use the surplus appears inevitable. Sen. Madden predicts "spirited debate" on the issue. And indeed, there is no shortage of spending suggestions including the notion put forward by Maryland's Common Cause director, Kathleen Scullney, that the state seize this golden opportunity to set aside $35 million to publicly fund legislative campaigns. In any case, dividing up the spoils is by no means the only battle facing lawmakers this session. Among the issues likely to generate heat this session are:
Also on the docket this session: several bills aimed at the working poor and their children. Despite dramatic declines in state welfare rolls (down 65% since 1995), one in six Maryland children still live in poverty, and many have no health insurance coverage. There is strong bi-partisan support for several related measures, including:
Lawmakers clearly hope to give the working poor a hand up. It remains to be seen, however, whether they can refrain from pushing through too many hand-outs, given the riches now at their disposal.
There is a saying in the Maryland Senate that all lawmakers and the governor might wish to heed: "You don't get yourself in financial trouble during bad times...only during good times."