Townsend ensnared in budget Catch-22

Sun Staff

Maryland's worsening budget woes have put Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend on the horns of a dilemma.

The more credit she claims for playing a role in Gov. Parris N. Glendening's popular programs, the more blame she risks for Maryland's $1.7 billion budget shortfall.

But if the Democratic gubernatorial nominee denies responsibility for the state's budget mess, she throws away the eight years of experience in the State House that have been a hallmark of her campaign.

"Let me be clear what the truth is. I sat in the budget meetings. I listened to discussions and I participated in discussions," Townsend said last week. "So you're getting a person for governor who knows about the budget, who has worked on the budget. [But] the final decision is made by the governor."

The budget issue has become more significant with a new poll showing that Maryland voters' top state concern is the shortfall, the first time an issue has overtaken education.

And the poll - taken by Gonzales/Arscott Research & Communications Inc. of Annapolis - was conducted before last week's revelation that the state's two-year budget shortfall had jumped by more than $600 million.

Maryland's annual budget is about $21.7 billion this year, and last week's lowered tax collection estimates puts it about $400 million in the red. Next year's state spending is projected to be $1.1 billion more than revenue.

"She and her campaign have a decision to make about how she is going to portray her involvement with budget issues in the administration," said pollster Carol Arscott. "Was she a player or was she, as [Comptroller] William Donald Schaefer suggests, out of the loop? It's always a delicate matter for a vice president or lieutenant governor seeking to ascend to the top position."

Differing accounts

Maryland Republicans, including gubernatorial candidate Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., are eager to blame Glendening for the shortfall but are grappling with how to portray Townsend's role - as being at fault or as being a powerless lieutenant governor.

"We're not going to allow the Townsend campaign to 'a la carte' it," Ehrlich said. "She was either there and involved, or it was as Governor Schaefer said it."

Complicating Townsend's political dilemma are conflicting accounts from her supporters about how active she has been in state budgets during the past eight years.

For weeks, Schaefer has been saying Townsend played no part in the budget, "was never consulted on it" by the governor and should be held blameless for the current woes.

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. gave an almost identical description last week. "I have never heard or seen or listened to or experienced her being in the room in any budget preparation discussions," Taylor said.

But Del. Howard P. Rawlings, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, says he recalls that Townsend was at the table every time legislative leaders negotiated with Glendening on the budget.

"When we've had meetings with the governor on fiscal issues on the budget, she's always there," Rawlings said.

Rawlings said that Townsend "oversees agencies that have significant budgets" and believes "she's certainly been much more involved in state fiscal policy than Ehrlich ever was."

Others say Townsend's role has fallen somewhere in between these two extremes.

"She may have had some internal influence on some of the things she was interested in, but the overall budget design was clearly the governor's design," said state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.

Others familiar with Glendening's budget preparations say the lieutenant governor frequently advocated for her priority areas, including juvenile justice and anti-crime efforts.

As Glendening sought to increase spending on public schools, Townsend often sought to place greater restrictions on the money. She persuaded the governor to limit the scope of a 2001 funding boost to early childhood education because of research showing its critical importance, according to sources familiar with the budget negotiations.

In an interview last week, Glendening confirmed Townsend's account of her role in the budget, saying she served as an advocate for her priorities.

"The lieutenant governor was probably involved in all of those decisions as well and, in fact, routinely urged that we invest more, particularly in those areas of her most immediate involvement," Glendening said. "In fact, somewhat ironically, in many cases I had to tell her 'no' because I had to balance the total budget as opposed to parts of it."

Townsend said she also occasionally argued to cut some of Glendening's spending priorities, though she refuses to specify which ones - indicating that to disclose such conversations would violate loyalty she has shown as lieutenant governor and that she expects from her No. 2.

Spending vs. recession

Yet almost all of the Democratic leaders unify behind one defense of Maryland's budget problems: that the shortfall is not caused by overspending, but by the recession.

Although the state's budget has grown about 60 percent during Glendening's eight years, almost 80 percent of that increase has gone to public schools, higher education, health care, transportation and public safety. Maryland also has managed to maintain $500 million in rainy day reserves and preserve its top marks from national bond-rating agencies, even as one other state - North Carolina - saw its debt ratings downgraded this summer.

"The reason there is a shortfall has to do with the economy. Can we fix that? Yes," said Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat and House Majority leader. "Last year, we cut almost $750 million. We can come back and do it again this year. We can once again slow the growth of any government programs that we can responsibly do. We can make sure any new programs legislated a year or so ago don't get started. To say that we are out of control is absolutely false."

In a speech at the opening of the new University of Maryland Law School building Friday, Glendening was defiant against charges that he overspent, insisting that his budget plans simply carried through the platform on which he was twice elected governor.

"Did we spent a lot? Darn right we did," Glendening said. "I've got to tell you this. If we had more, I would invest it today because it's the right thing to do for our future."

Republicans are eager to pounce on such statements as signs of fiscal irresponsibility.

"She has defended the Glendening-Townsend record, therefore she has to take responsibility for it," said Del. Robert L. Flanagan, a Howard County Republican and ranking GOP House Appropriations member. "She never expressed any reservations, or made any exceptions in her support for the Glendening-Townsend record. Under those circumstances, I think she has to accept full responsibility for the mess that we're in."

Lessons from Gore

Political analysts say Townsend might do well to embrace the administration's record and emphasize that Maryland's budget woes are less severe than most other states - a position she has been trying to take. They point to the struggles that Vice President Al Gore faced when he tried to selectively choose parts of President Bill Clinton's accomplishments.

"The general rule in campaigns is you can't offend reality, and the Gore lesson has been pretty well taken," said Herbert C. Smith, a political science professor at McDaniel College. "You can't run away. You take the good with the bad."

Sun staff writers David Nitkin and Sarah Koenig contributed to this article.

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