- The Washington Times - Monday, May 7, 2012

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland Democrats and Republicans rarely see eye to eye on state budget matters and much of the acrimony stems from their very different understandings of a simple three-letter word: “cut.”

The General Assembly is expected to finalize a budget during next week’s special session that will increase spending by as much as $1.2 billion over last year, continuing a trend that has seen the budget grow from $30 billion to more than $35 billion in the past five years.

Democratic leaders say they have made more than $7 billion in cuts over that span by eliminating select programs and limiting projected spending increases - resulting in budgets that have grown, but not by as much as originally planned.

This has often raised the ire of Republicans who argue these aren’t cuts at all, and that real cuts can only come from reducing overall year-to-year spending.

“It’s not the same as a cut,” said Delegate Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio, Talbot Republican. “Most people have not experienced an increase in their income, yet it’s costing them more to live. We as a state government should be sensitive to that.”

The battle over cuts has come to the forefront since lawmakers ran out of time last month and failed to pass several tax and revenue increases, resulting in a budget that cuts more than $500 million from the $35.9-billion plan that Democrats initially appeared poised to pass.

Lawmakers had outlined the cuts as a backup plan in case they failed to pass the accompanying revenue bills.

Democrats have called the resulting budget a “doomsday” proposal, which they say must be fixed during a special session to add revenues and undo the impact of a half-billion in reductions.

Republicans, meanwhile, have pointed out that thebudgetis still $700 million larger than last year’s spending plan and have argued that a flat or reduced budget would take some of the tax burden off residents struggling to pay their bills and find work in tough economic times.

But Democrats say the budget must grow to protect those people because the demand for public services such as education, Medicaid and financial assistance often increases during bad times.

Maryland has reduced its year-to-year spending just once in recent decades - in 2010, one year after the Board of Public Works led by Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley made $450 million in mid-year cuts because of lower-than-expected revenues.

“When you have a dramatic increase in the number of people who require health services because they have lost a job or their incomes have been cut, I would personally feel it’s irresponsible to start cutting them off from those services,” House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve, Montgomery Democrat, told Republicans during the assembly’s regular session.

Neil Bergsman, director of the Maryland Budget and Tax Policy Institute, said both parties have made tactical use of language and “cuts” during the budget debate. He thinks there is validity to the notion that spending must grow in line with inflation and public need.

Even in a time of slow and cautious economic growth, Mr. Bergsman said the costs of living and services are growing and the government must keep up to meet demand.

“A government is the only line of business where your revenues can be down at the same time that your business is up,” he said. “The dollar amount of the state budget has gone up in total, but we can also say that the amount of services that can be provided for a cost has gone down.”

Christopher Summers, president of the Maryland Public Policy Institute, disagreed and said he thinks lawmakers have made largely superficial cuts. Deeper cuts can be made without hurting vital services, he said.

He added that he thinks increased spending has hurt the state and continues to lead to tax increases.

State officials “are basically saying we’ve grown state government to a size that we can’t really afford,” Mr. Summers said. “The big question that Maryland taxpayers have to ask is what size do they want Maryland’s government to be and are they willing to pay for that.”