- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 5, 2011

ANNAPOLIS | A House-Senate conference committee put the finishing touches Tuesday on the state’s $34.2 billion budget for fiscal 2012, compromising on the few remaining differences between their respective versions of the spending plan, including cuts to higher education.

“It’s always tough, but this year has been uniquely tough,” said Warren G. Deschenaux, director of the state’s Office of Policy Analysis.

Committee members wrapped up negotiation in about 30 minutes, after appearing miles apart late last week. Members disagreed on so many issues in their first meeting Thursday that they canceled Friday and Saturday sessions.

However, they reached a crucial agreement Monday on changes to the state pension system requiring higher employee contributions and reducing health benefits. The compromise plan also shifts a large amount of the cost of setting real property values onto Maryland counties.

Among the remaining issues resolved Tuesday was the exact wording for several budget items, including a study into merging the University of Maryland, College Park and the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

House and Senate negotiators also agreed to cut $4 million from higher education, rather than the House’s proposed $8 million or the Senate’s $2 million.

The budget currently includes $49.8 million in unallocated funds, which would likely go toward underfunded programs. Additional unallocated funds could come in, contingent upon the House passing a Senate-backed increase in the state alcohol sales tax.

This year’s budget includes about $900 million more in spending than last year’s, but will cut $734 million from the state’s nearly $2 billion structural deficit a 38-percent reduction.

Republicans fought unsuccessfully for more cuts in the Democrat-controlled Assembly, but said they will continue to try again next year.

“It’s a small step, and most of us wanted a lot more,” said Sen. George C. Edwards, Garrett Republican. “But we made some progress, so that’s a good thing. We’ll just have to keep picking away and keep the other side on their toes.”