O'Malley vs. Ehrlich: Who cut more?
Gov. O'Malley is set to go before the Board of Public Works this week to push for hundreds of millions in cuts to this year's budget to plug a $432 million hole brought on by the tanking economy. It is, by my count, the fourth major haircut the budget has taken since O'Malley became governor.
Nonetheless, O'Malley hasn't exactly won a reputation as a budget cutter, at least among his critics, who tend to focus more on the $1.3 billion in new taxes he pushed through rather than the money he's hacked out of the budget. Republicans continue to hit him hard on spending, saying he should have been cutting more, sooner. The idea they've been pushing for a while is a spending freeze, kind of like what John McCain has been suggesting on the federal level.
In that light, it's interesting to look back at what happened when the GOP controlled the governor's office under similar circumstances. When Bob Ehrlich took office, the financial situation was terrible. The economy was still in the post-9/11 doldrums, the Thornton education funding plan was kicking in and the bill for hefty Glendening-era spending was coming due. Making matters worse for him, the legislature, in what was to become an annual tradition, rejected his slots plan.
Ehrlich's response? In his first two years in office, he cut $932 million in general fund spending.
(He also increased taxes and fees by a little over $1 billion, a fact his defenders tend to gloss over but which the Democrats will be more than happy to remind you of.)
So how does O'Malley stack up?
In his first session, O'Malley proposed spending about $232 million less than the state's baseline estimates. (That's the same methodology I used above to get the figures for Ehrlich when I wrote about it a couple of years ago.) In the summer of 2007, O'Malley came back to the Board of Public Works and got them to cut $213 million or so from the General Fund. In November's special session, the legislature mandated more spending cuts, which amounted to about $509 million in reductions this spring.
All told, that comes to $954 million, or pretty darn close to the same amount Ehrlich cut over a comparable amount of time in office (though slightly less in percentage terms).
Unfortunately for O'Malley, that's where the comparison ends.
About this time in Ehrlich's term, the real estate market went nuts, and state revenues went through the roof. In his last two years in office, Ehrlich got to make massive increases in state spending (way more than Glendening ever did), just the sort of thing that can help a politician heading into a tough re-election battle. (Though, in this case, maybe not enough.)
O'Malley, on the other hand, is catching the downside of that hot real estate market and the global financial meltdown it helped create. The structural budget deficit O'Malley thought he'd fixed last year is back, to the tune of $432 million this year and $1 billion (at least) next year. On Wednesday, O'Malley will be proposing between $200 million and $250 million in cuts and will probably be back for more before the year is out. And that may only be the beginning.
Andrew A. Green