- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 15, 2001

ANNAPOLIS The Maryland House of Delegates gave preliminary approval to a $21 billion operating budget yesterday, but not before some lawmakers took the governor to task for funding environmental and higher education initiatives at the expense of health care for the poor and disabled.

Delegate James W. Hubbard of Prince George's County, a liberal Democrat who champions environmental causes, proposed moving roughly $44 million earmarked for parks expansion, land preservation and higher education to "human needs" he says Gov. Parris N. Glendening has forsaken to build himself a national reputation on Smart Growth and education.

"We illegally detain people in nursing homes and institutions and psychiatric hospitals who have a desperate desire to go home," said Mr. Hubbard, referring to a 1999 U.S. Supreme Court decision that directs states to move people with mental, developmental and physical disabilities back to their communities with in-home care when it is in the patient's best interests.

Liberal environmental advocate Delegate Leon Billings, Montgomery County Democrat, said he's willing to put environmental initiatives off in favor of human needs.

"This is an urgent priority … a difference that liberals and conservatives alike have with this governor," Mr. Billings said.

The amendment rallied the House's most conservative and many of its most liberal members to its support but failed 56-79.

"These are things we would like to be able to fund, but the solutions have to be sustainable," said Glendening spokesman Mike Morrill, explaining that health care costs are hard to contain and escalating. "The reason they are having so much difficulty is because they are tough decisions and the priorities are so similar."

But the House did send a message in a rare, if not unprecedented, action.

It overturned the Appropriations Committee's plan to cut $2 million from $20 million directed at increasing salaries and improving care in nursing homes.

"We need to honor our commitment to our loved ones and the loved ones of those we represent," said Delegate Adelaide C. Eckhardt, an Eastern Shore Republican. Appropriations Chairman Howard P. Rawlings, Baltimore Democrat, noted health care spending would increase 8 percent under his committee's proposal.

Fellow Baltimore Democrat Shirley Nathan-Pulliam said it's still insufficient when nursing home employees doing "backbreaking" work "could make more money working in a fast-food chain."

Legislators are looking at a one-time tax-amnesty program that analysts project could raise $50 million to $70 million from delinquent payers who might seize the chance to settle with the state without penalties.

Although such a windfall could not responsibly be directed to continuing expenditures, it might be used for pilot prescription-drug programs, some have suggested.

In a letter he sent to the Appropriations Committee last week, Mr. Glendening pledged to work with the General Assembly on a long-term strategy for meeting health care needs.

Higher education and mass transit would get 10 percent increases in a budget that spends $885 million more than last year. But General Assembly members who can only cut the budget said such spending comes at the expense of "core governmental programs" underfunded by $160 million.

"It's a budget filled with broken promises and broken commitments," House Minority Whip Robert L. Flanagan said.

Mr. Flanagan, a Republican who represents Howard and Montgomery counties, and some Democrats noted that the governor has taken $187 million from school construction an amount slightly less than extra spending he wants for his Smart Growth programs.

And with revenue projections for next year decreased by $50 million yesterday, even cuts the House Appropriations Committee made leave the budget spending in excess of $800 million more than the state can expect to collect in revenue.

The gap would be closed with money from the "rainy day" reserve and what remains unspent from the current budget. Although the rainy day balance will still be above the 5 percent of general funds needed for the state to retain the triple-A bond rating that enables the state to borrow at the lowest rates, it will leave less cushion to deal with underfunded or unforeseen needs.


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