“Delay” Plan Irritates Local Lawmakers

BERLIN – Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley this week released his “cost of delay” budget, a doomsday alternative proposed in the event the General Assembly does not approve his plan to get the state out of its $1.7 billion deficit problem, has rankled local elected officials because of its dramatic cuts to state aid to the counties and programs.

O’Malley on Tuesday released his “Cost of Delay” budget outlining what will likely happen if the General Assembly does not approve his complex plan of tax increases and other revenue generators including slots. The General Assembly will convene on Monday night for a special session to begin debating the governor’s plan and the projected $1.7 billion deficit.

The governor’s alternative “cost of delay” plan upset local elected officials this week because of its perceived “play ball or face the consequences” tenor. County Commissioner Virgil Shockley, for example, said if nothing positive comes out of the General Assembly special session, the governor’s alternative represents a doomsday scenario.

“It sounds like ‘if you don’t give me what I want’ or ‘if this special session isn’t successful,’ this is the alternative you are faced with,” he said. “It’s totally irresponsible. We didn’t create this situation in the first place.”

The “cost of delay” budget put forth by O’Malley this week appears to be a hammer of sorts to not-so-gently urge state lawmakers to go along with his budget reduction plan or face the alternative, which would include $850 million in cuts to local jurisdictions and another  $800 million in cuts to state agencies and programs. No county is spared in the draconian budget reduction plan and some are hit harder than others.

For example, Worcester County stands to lose $7.4 million in direct state aid alone not including the trickle-down from cuts to agencies and programs the county partners with the state to provide. At $7.4 million, Worcester is in the bottom third in terms of the reduction in state aid directly to the counties. Baltimore City stands to lose the most at $218 million with Prince George’s County second at $153 million. Kent County is at the bottom of the list at $2 million.

Taking the biggest hit in the “cost of delay” plan are several state agencies and programs, much of which will have to be absorbed by the counties in order to continue to provide services to their citizens. Almost no state agency or program is spared in the plan, which includes cutting or freezing the funding levels for public education, police aid, Program Open Space, salaries and pensions, health departments, tourism and countless others. The “cost of delay” budget also includes cuts or spending freezes for specific state-sponsored projects. Closest to home, for example, is a plan to cut the funding for the Ocean City Convention Center expansion deficit by $1.5 million.

Whether the governor is able to advance his tax increase/slots plan in the General Assembly or the alternative cost of delay budget is handed down, the counties will likely suffer in either case, according to Commissioner Bud Church, who said the alternatives could boil down to a choice of lesser evils.

“Pick your favorite poison,” he said. “In either case, there is going to be some blood-letting. Do you cut both wrists or just one?”

Commissioner Judy Boggs said neither plan is all that palpable to the counties, particularly in Worcester where decision makers have a reputation for being fiscally frugal. Boggs said the tax hike plan would hurt residents in Worcester accustomed to one of the lowest tax structures in the state, but the alternative could put the most vulnerable people in the county at risk because of proposed cuts to programs and agencies.

“The money is going to come out of the people’s pockets one way or the other,” she said. “A lot of the impact will be on our most vulnerable citizens. Either way, it’s not going to be pretty.”

Boggs said the proposed ‘cost of delay’ budget is disturbing in that it appears to penalize local jurisdictions for a deficit situation that was none of their doing. She said the state could take a page out of Worcester’s County’s book, which has a reputation for closely managing its finances.

“Worcester County is very conservative and very frugal, but the state hasn’t done as good a job,” she said. “This appears to penalize the counties for being prudent.”

Shockley said he understood the predicament the governor is in, and even understands on some level the intent of the proposed cost of delay budget, but took exception to the apparent method, intended or otherwise.

“He’s saying ‘give me all this or we’ll cut your legs off,’” he said. “It’s a mild threat, but it is still a threat nonetheless. Threatening people isn’t going to solve the problem.”

Shockley said the state’s irresponsible actions have brought about the deficit problem and blamed an unwillingness of the state leadership to find a common ground.

“They’ve been robbing this to pay for that and moving money around from one category to the other on paper,” he said. “What did they think was going to happen? They got in this situation because nobody was willing to take a stand.”