Annapolis’ apostle of arithmetic
Deschenaux’s wit, accumen and independence will be hard to replace
Annapolis is about to get a lot less droll. Warren Deschenaux, long the chief fiscal analyst in the Department of Legislative Services, and more recently that agency’s director, will retire on Dec. 1, and that will leave Maryland’s capital without something it badly needs: someone who can wryly deflate the nonsense spouted so often by governors and legislators of both parties when it comes to the state’s taxes, spending and debt. Celebrated as he is for his sense of humor — DLS’ annual briefings on the governor’s budget proposal aren’t known as “The Warren Show” for nothing — Mr. Deschenaux’s real value is in the clarity and impartiality with which he has analyzed Maryland’s finances.
Bearded, bespectacled and cuddly in appearance (if not manner), Mr. Deschenaux has for decades pointed out the inconvenient truths of Maryland’s chronic budget shortfalls. Some legislators have used the figures he provides to argue that Maryland spends too much, some to argue that it taxes too little. The only cause he can fairly be said to serve is that of math.
As with all things in government these days, he has at times found himself in the political crosshairs. Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration has questioned just how nonpartisan the DLS is, and it has accused Mr. Deschenaux of making up numbers at the behest of Democratic legislators to make the governor look bad. The Hogan folks should ask just how happy the O’Malley Deschenaux administration was when Mr. Deschenaux called them out for Program Open Space shell games, when he warned lawmakers that the governor was relying on too much borrowing or when he repeatedly noted that the administration’s various fiscal moves failed to erase the state’s persistent gap between spending and revenues.
That is not to say that Mr. Deschenaux is without a point of view, it’s just that his opinions on fiscal matters tend not to fall along partisan lines. For example, he has often made the case that local governments aren’t pulling enough weight in their partnership with the state to pay for the services residents rely on. But as for whether the state should address any particular fiscal crisis through spending cuts or tax increases, he has been scrupulously agnostic.
At a time in national politics when reality is fungible, Mr. Deschenaux’s value has been to provide lawmakers in Annapolis with a common set of facts from which they can debate. Democrats and Republicans both consider the fiscal analyses of legislation his agency produces to be the gold standard, and members of both parties routinely cite DLS numbers to make their cases in debate. State government would be far weaker without that shared respect for the DLS’ integrity.
For that reason, House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller should think carefully about who should succeed him. Appointing someone too closely associated with one party or the other could irrevocably damage the DLS’ reputation. Mr. Deschenaux’s wit may be inimitable, but for the sake of good government, we hope his independence is not.