- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 15, 2011

ANNAPOLIS — An influential committee of state lawmakers recommended Thursday night that officials trim at least half of the state’s $1.1-billion structural deficit during next year’s General Assembly.

The joint Spending Affordability Committee approved a final set of recommendations for next year’s budget, which include that the Assembly and Gov. Martin O'Malley cut the deficit while potentially accelerating spending in some infrastructure projects.

Mr. O'Malley, a Democrat, will submit his proposed budget in mid-January.

Committee members said their recommendations will help close the deficit — a gap between anticipated revenues and expenditures, which was $2 billion a year ago — and allow the state to create jobs by tackling more projects.

“If we’re going to manage our state in a fiscally improved manner, we have to make decisions,” said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Prince George’s Democrat. “The big initiative is creation of jobs. Hopefully, we can get some revenues to put some money in for transportation.”

The committee has advised governors since 1982, and governors and legislators have often taken their cues from many of the recommendations.

Its members met several times in recent months and have typically discussed taking a “balanced approach” to spending next year, which could include some cuts as well as tax increases to generate more revenue.

While the committee asked the governor and lawmakers to cut more than $500 million from the deficit, it left them the option to do so through spending cuts and revenue increases — despite protests from House Minority Leader Anthony J. O’Donnell, Calvert Republican, who said he wanted the reduction to come strictly from cuts.

Lawmakers have not ruled out several possible tax hikes, including an increase in the state’s gas tax.

“I think we violated the committee’s purpose,” Mr. O’Donnell said. “This recommendation has no limitations whatsoever.”

Committee member and House Speaker Michael E. Busch said last month that officials hope to increase spending on schools, roads and infrastructure.

The move, he said, would create short- and long-term jobs and would help the state to complete backlogged projects and drive down spending in future years’ budgets.

“Our goal is to try and see how many jobs we can create and what type of community benefit we can undertake,” said Mr. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat. “We’re going to look at all the different options.”

The committee recommended last year that state officials trim at least 33 percent from the state’s then $2 billion structural deficit, and the Assembly was ultimately able to cut the deficit roughly in half by increasing some taxes and fees, reducing state payouts to retirees and keeping relatively flat support for local governments.

In 2009, the committee recommended that officials not increase state spending. The governor and Democrat-controlled Assembly obliged, cutting spending by 1.4 percent — making Maryland one of 12 states that year to reduce spending, according to a survey by the National Governors Association and National Association of State Budget Officers.

Mr. O'Malley and leading committee members already appear to be on the same wavelength with regard to capital spending, considering Mr. O'Malley has said he will introduce a jobs package during next year’s session that leans heavily on job creation through new infrastructure projects.

He and lawmakers will have the tall task of balancing a budget amid potential federal cuts and declining transportation and property-tax revenues.

The declining revenues could force state officials to again limit aid to county and municipal governments, which would likely raise the ire of local officials.

After the governor submits his budget, the Assembly will debate, amend and likely approve the spending plan during its 90-day session.