- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 20, 2000

Maryland lawmakers voted yesterday to let the state's budget exceed traditional spending limits for the third year in a row, despite indications that a long economic boom is ending.

The General Assembly's Spending Affordability Committee set a cap that would let the state's operating expenditures grow by $950 million for the budget year that begins July 1.

The move flouts committee guidelines that call for keying state budget growth to the state's personal-income growth, which the Board of Revenue Estimates projects will continue growing at a rate of about 6.2 percent through 2001 before dipping to 5.9 percent in 2002.

The majority of Democrats on the committee and their budget analysts agreed that money the state expects to receive from the national tobacco settlement should be counted as state revenues.

The budget increase they approved is 6.95 percent when tobacco-settlement money is counted as part of the current budget, but 7.64 percent when it is not and it wasn't last year.

When the current budget is adjusted to include tobacco-settlement money, the budget increase approved is $883 million.

Citizen Advisory Committee member H. Furlong Baldwin, president of Baltimore-based Mercantile Safe Deposit and Trust, told legislators the move is "irresponsible" in light of national economic trends that include reports of large losses and planned layoffs at some major corporations.

"We know you have to get elected … and do all these lovely things, but that's not where the economy is," Mr. Baldwin said.

Especially troubling, Mr. Baldwin said, is a backlog of delayed maintenance projects at state facilities, totaling $47 million, and at state-supported colleges and universities.

Delegate Nancy Kopp, Montgomery County Democrat and committee co-chairman, said she, too, is concerned that delaying property maintenance is going to prove costly for the state later.

"We're sailing the ship of state into a full storm," said House Minority Leader Robert H. Kittleman, Howard and Montgomery counties Republican, who cast a dissenting vote.

Mr. Kittleman said allowing the budget to grow 6.2 percent, in line with personal-income growth, would have been a generous increase in the face of an economic downturn.

But Mrs. Kopp contended the new growth cap is reasonable, given unmet needs and the fact that state revenues have exceeded estimates for several years.

Still, legislators will have to whittle $100 million to $150 million "already promised [to people]" out of the budget Gov. Parris N. Glendening presents next month, predicted Sen. Robert R. Neall, Anne Arundel County Democrat.

Local governments have requested about $1 billion and legislators have asked for about $500 million for various projects, said a source close to the Glendening administration.

Glendening spokeswoman Michelle Byrnie said the governor's budget will call for "dramatic increases" in spending for education, mass transit and curbing suburban sprawl, but the administration has released few details.

Legislative analysts said transportation projects planned over the next six years will increase state debt by 65 percent.

Mr. Kittleman said he is worried the governor's plan to expand mass transit will increase that burden further, taking money he argues should be spent to build roads.

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