By Barry Rascovar
Through no fault of his own, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s slimmed-down, $43.5 billion budget could implode at any moment, depending on actions in Washington by President Trump and a Republican-controlled Congress intent on slashing federal domestic spending.
Just one example: Trump wants immediate repeal of the Affordable Care Act – the hated Obamacare he pilloried in the campaign. Tea party Republicans in Congress are marching rapidly down that same path.
It sounds wonderful to Trump’s followers and foes of the ACA.
But the loss of ACA funds would blow an immediate $1.26 billion hole in Hogan’s balanced budget – and would add up to a stunning $7.7 billion loss for Maryland over the next five years.
That’s just the tip of Maryland’s deficit iceberg if Trump and his Republican majority on the Hill start chopping with their budget axes.
Losing ACA funds would cost Maryland $100 million in savings from drug rebates that Hogan is counting on in his budget, $62 million in child health matching money, $16 million for home care and $225 million in federal support that subsidizes health insurance for 60,000 moderate- or low-income Marylanders.
Then there’s Trump’s federal job freeze, with Virginia and Maryland most at risk of seeing large declines in its federal workforce.
Think what it would mean for the Free State’s economy – and tax collections – if Trump and Congress slash the workforce at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the Social Security Administration, the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health – all centered in Maryland.
There’s nothing in Hogan’s budget to cushion the state from a Trumpian-sized downsizing of the federal government. Instead, his fiscal blueprint ignores that approaching whirlwind and focuses instead on ratcheting down spending without destroying existing social programs.
Clearly, the governor is trying to make it past the next election using smart spending hold-downs and a hoped-for upward bump in revenue collections.
He certainly wasn’t considering the anti-spending mood in Washington or the state’s precarious long-term budget outlook. Hogan just wants to get through 2018.
But legislative budget analysists noted last week there are very large deficits looming that Hogan hasn’t addressed.
Those potential pools of red ink leave “the state vulnerable to expected federal cost containment actions” that include personnel cuts, greatly reduced agency budgets and repeal of the ACA without a viable replacement.
As it stands, Hogan’s budget could run into big trouble with Maryland’s Medicaid program this coming fiscal year. Legislative analysts politely wrote that the governor’s budget “contains optimistic assumptions” about slower Medicaid enrollment and the state’s ability to recoup drug rebates from pharmaceutical companies.
If Hogan’s numbers are wrong, his Medicaid allocation could be in deficit territory by hundreds of millions of dollars.
Some of the governor’s budget-balancing tricks aren’t likely to work, either.
For instance, he figures he can save nearly $100 million if the legislature repeals spending mandates lawmakers approved last year. Don’t count on Democratic lawmakers giving the Republican governor what he wants.
Additionally, Hogan wants to increase the budget deficit in future years by handing out tax cuts to military retirees, police and firefighters, tax savings to those with student loans, and tax breaks to small business owners offering sick leave to workers.
The cost? $106 million in the first year and $488 million over the next five years.
Hogan says he wiped out the state’s structural deficit with this budget – but only because he grabbed $170 million from the state’s Rainy Day Fund.
Even worse, analysts say Hogan’s financial plan does little to prevent a widening structural deficit in future years, growing to $432 million a year from now and $1.2 billion four years later – and that doesn’t even take into account the worsening fiscal situation if Obamacare is repealed.
The Department of Legislative Services also points to deeply troubling trends in the Maryland Department of Transportation’s six-year capital spending plan. MDOT can’t build all the projects it is promising due to a tightening revenue picture.
Maryland’s gas tax receipts are far less than expected, debt service costs are rising and MDOT operating expenses are galloping ahead of projections.
On top of that, Hogan has set aside $747 million in MDOT cash to greatly increase highway-construction aid to Maryland counties. That move would require a sharp cutback in bonds issued by MDOT, which means reducing the number of promised transportation projects over the next six years.
MDOT’s growing budget hole
All told, MDOT is $1.7 billion short of the money it needs to complete projects on its list. Moreover, analysts say the department is underestimating its own operating expenses by $585 million in future years.
There could be tough questioning and resistance to Hogan’s transportation program when his minions try to explain this disturbing situation to the General Assembly’s budget panels.
Yet the MDOT quagmire could rapidly become a secondary concern if the White House and Congress go on a budget-cutting rampage this spring, creating “carnage” in state capitals.
On its own, Hogan’s budget appears to be a sensible, Republican-styled attempt to slowly diminish spending in ways that begin to align appropriations with the state’s annual revenue flow.
He resorts to a number of gimmicks to balance this year’s fiscal package, but what governor doesn’t?
There are almost certain to be fireworks over Hogan’s more questionable budget proposals in the next few months—especially if the man in the White House turns off much of Maryland’s fiscal pipeline from Washington.