Commentary by Ron Miller
(June 3, 2009) One of the artifacts of the fiscal malpractice being committed on the people of Maryland by the one-party monopoly in Annapolis is the shift of costs from the state to the counties. The state can proclaim that it's balanced the budget but in fact it's just passing the buck, and southern Maryland taxpayers will still get kicked in the end, just by a foot that's closer to home.
In the most recent session, O'Malley, Miller and Busch, attorneys above the laws of common sense and good stewardship, cut aid to local governments by $113 million. How does this affect the taxpayers of southern Maryland?
Calvert County's budget for next year is slightly lower than last year's budget, doesn't dip into reserve funds and keeps county government and school system employees on the job. There were also no changes to tax rates, but this was only a partial victory because the county had voted last year to consider a "constant yield" tax rate to offset skyrocketing property assessments. Under such an arrangement, the tax rates would be lowered as property assessments went up, the objective being to keep the revenue stream constant regardless of the fluctuations in the housing market. They were unable to enact it this year, however, because of the current recession. Some citizens expressed their frustration at the county commission's failure to enact the constant yield tax rates, but generally the budget was well-received as a disciplined and responsible response to the current economy.
Things were not as rosy in St. Mary's County, where the commissioners had to use $4.1 million in surplus funds to cobble together the budget. Because of lost state and income tax revenue, they were unable to eliminate the local energy tax which inflicts pain on the taxpayers with every increase in energy costs. Moreover, Commissioner Larry Jarboe was unsuccessful in persuading his fellow commissioners to implement a constant yield tax rate similar to the one discussed in Calvert County. To his credit, he not only proposed the constant yield tax rate but offered program cuts as an offset to the nearly $7 billion in potentially lost revenue had the constant yield been enacted. He promises to look for additional budget cuts and present them for consideration. Unlike Calvert County, many St. Mary's County citizens felt the commissioners didn't do enough, which will make for an interesting 2010 election.
The story is much the same in Charles County except that taxpayers there are angry about some high-profile county expenditures, including three sport utility vehicles for the commissioners use, the hiring of a their own special security officer, and the renovation of a meeting room. The taxpayers who crowded the courthouse at a recent budget hearing declared these expenditures and more as irresponsible and unnecessary expenses in a time of recession. The level of discontent in Charles County is probably the highest of the three counties, particularly since the perception is the commissioners spend money on themselves and their pet projects and raise the citizens' taxes to pay for them.
Unfortunately, it will get worse before it gets better because of the state's inability to keep its credit card in its pocket. The state already has a $200 million shortfall projected for next fiscal year, and some analysts say it will reach over $1 billion by the time the next General Assembly session rolls around.
Senate President Mike Miller is on record as saying the counties shouldn't be as heavily subsidized by the state as they are, to the tune of about 40% of the state budget. He floated a trial balloon during the last session about passing on a significant portion of teachers pension costs to the counties, and I expect he'll do it again next session. He believes the counties are getting fat at the state's expense. Senator Miller, have you every considered the possibility that the counties know better how to manage the taxpayer's dollars than the state?
The prospect of a significant budget shortfall in Annapolis should have the counties worried. The fallout from these budget battles is hard to predict, but 2010 could be a watershed year for change at every level of Maryland government. It ought to be fun to watch.
Ron Miller, of Huntingtown, is a conservative blogger and activist, former and future candidate for the Maryland Senate, and communications director for the Calvert County Republican Party. Ron is a regular contributor to
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