By KATE PRAHLAD, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS (October 25, 2007) - The Maryland Association of Counties urged legislators Thursday to pass Gov. Martin O'Malley's $1.7 billion budget plan, saying county governments could not handle the cuts to services if the shortfall was passed on to them. Sen. E.J. Pipkin, R-Queen Anne's, recently said all that is necessary for a balanced budget would be to cut spending and transfer more expenses to the county governments.
"Alarm bells rang all across the state" when the governor this week outlined cuts that would be made if his plan is not passed in the special legislative session that starts next week, said association President Jan Gardner.
"It was not a pretty picture," said Gardner, the Frederick County Commission president, who was flanked by several county executives in the State House.
With less money coming in, counties would be forced to raise more money through their one major source of revenue, said Baltimore County Executive Jim Smith.
"That's property taxes, so that might go up, which affects everybody," Smith said. "Marylanders are going to pay more in tax under alternative plans."
But opponents of the governor's plan criticized the county officials for engaging in "O'Malley's politics of fear."
"I'm very disappointed in the association for them to allow any credibility to O'Malley's politics of fear," said Senate Minority Whip Allan Kittleman of Howard County.
He noted that Republicans proposed a budget amendment in the last legislative session that would have saved $500 million, without any reductions in programs and reducing spending, "But it was not supported by O'Malley or the Maryland Association of Counties."
Richard Falknor, vice president of the Maryland Taxpayers Association, said the budget shortfall can be closed without new or higher taxes.
"Ours is not a partisan position. . . . We're for no new Republican or Democrat taxes," Falknor said. "I don't think it's difficult to cut 5 percent out of the budget across the board and take care of any possible deficit in the upcoming fiscal year."
But the cuts that would need to be made without new taxes are not abstract, said Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, they will be felt in diminished county services. "Howard County won't stand for its top-notch library systems to erode," Ulman said. "Folks in Annapolis need to come together."
Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon said the numbers should not be used as "scare tactics," but that citizens needed to understand the impact on an individual's life.
That impact would not be that bad, Falknor said, if the cuts were divvied up.
"You've got to cut 5 percent—$1.7 billion out of a $30 billion operating budget—and I don't think that would be felt in any serious way," he said. "Any good manager should be able to handle that so that nobody feels much serious pain."
Gardner said the association also supports a "reasonable, responsible" plan for slots, as long as they are part of a "comprehensive, long-term" budget plan and the counties have some say in how the revenues are allocated. Slots' anticipated revenues on their own would not be enough to help the counties, she said.
As a former member of the association, Kittleman said he was "just very sad that they would allow themselves to be used."
"It's disturbing to talk about delaying tactics when nothing was done for 10 months," he said.
But Wicomico County Executive Rick Pollitt supported the governor's plan, saying the budget issue has to be about more than partisanship.
"In Wicomico, we're accused of being provincial . . . we don't care if you're a Democrat or a Republican," he said. "It's about quality of life and rising above partisanship."