Maryland buys land amid budget crunch
Today the governor is announcing a batch of land purchases through the state's preservation program -- expected to total between $60 million and $70 million. That's coming at the same time that the governor is talking about the need for major budget cuts and likely the first furlough of state employees since the early 1990s. Talk about awkward timing!
The budgetary answer for why this isn't completely nuts is that the land preservation funds come from a dedicated pot of money generated through real estate transfer taxes, and the cuts and furloughs are meant to address an expected shortfall in the general fund. Moreover, it makes sense to buy land when real estate prices are dropping. Nonetheless, I can already imagine the Grinch-who-stole-Christmas press release coming out of the legislature's Republican caucus.
So why go forward with the land purchase when the state's in so much financial trouble?
Whatever the short term political hit, it does contribute to a very conscious effort by the O'Malley adminsitration to address problems differently than the Ehrlich administration did. During its tough budget times, the Ehrlich administration raided state open space funds (and transportation funds and whatever other funds they could find) as part of an effort to avoid at all costs raising the income or sales tax. Beyond not buying new land, Ehrlich famously (and unsuccessfully) attempted to sell off some of the land the state already had.
O'Malley sharply criticized Ehrlich for those moves during the 2006 campaign, saying his Republican predecessor was robbing Peter to pay Paul in an effort to avoid hard choices. O'Malley, on the other hand, appears to take some perverse pleasure in cultivating an image of someone who tackles problems head on, whatever the cost. Thus, using open space funds for something other than open space is not the kind of thing he'd do.
In 2006, back when things were going relatively well, Maryland voters picked O'Malley's approach over Ehrlich's. How things will look in 2010 is anybody's guess.