The Governors' Burden

NEWLY elected governors ready to step into office with an antitax mandate are likely to bump into a fiscal wall. Most states are experiencing falling revenues as the economic slow-down takes hold. Tax cuts become impractical when the means of meeting state obligations are already melting away. Massachusetts Governor-elect William Weld, for example, is confronted by revenue collections that continue to fall short of estimates. His vow to roll back the commonwealth's recently enacted tax on services may have to go the way of ``read my lips.'' Governor-elect John Engler of Michigan, who used such promises as a 20 percent cut in property taxes to unseat a two-term incumbent, is now nose-to-nose with a projected $1 billion budget deficit.

These men, and a dozen other new state chief executives, bring to office a fervent belief that state budgets are loaded with trimmable expenses. Overstaffed departments and marginal projects undoubtedly lurk in nearly every state capital, and they should be vigorously weeded out. But mandated programs, or programs that are nearly impossible to cut for political reasons, also abound.

States' welfare loads are mounting as the economy declines. Medicaid, a federal-state health care program for the poor, is siphoning off ever larger shares of revenue. Politicians who ran on anticrime platforms aren't about to slice into the burgeoning costs of new prison construction. And state funding for education is painful to trim when the call for better schools still echoes through the land.

Many governors will find that the areas easily reached by the trimming ax are few. So-called discretionary spending will have to be ruthlessly reduced, including many politically popular items that a governor planning to serve more than one term might like to keep.

Austerity is nearly unavoidable - unless you're in oil-rich Alaska with its projected $1 billion budget surplus. The biggest states, like California and New York, have some of the biggest problems, as revenues fall short of the estimates that underlie budgets. Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York, stung by an antitax mood among his constituents that gave him his thinnest margin of victory, has embarked on a plan to reduce the state work force by 10 percent.

All this means a period a tough-minded fiscal management that might even set the stage for a recovery from the current economic slide. Governors, incumbents and newcomers, will have ample opportunity to prove that some grit and wisdom lay behind the easy campaign promises.

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