- The Washington Times - Friday, April 5, 2002

ANNAPOLIS An impasse between the House and Senate over school funding was resolved yesterday, greatly improving chances that the legislature will pass a $1.3 billion increase in state aid before the session ends Monday.

However, the bill, which also would increase cigarette tax by 34 cents a pack, still faces several hurdles.

The legislature approved a balanced $21.6 billion state budget yesterday that preserves an income-tax cut and provides spending increases in health, welfare and education programs.

But House Appropriations Committee Chairman Howard P. Rawlings, Baltimore Democrat, said the state faces a potential deficit of about $775 million next year that will have to be dealt with by the new governor and the newly elected General Assembly.

The job was complicated by the fact that lawmakers refused to go along with some of the steps Gov. Parris N. Glendening took to balance the budget, including his recommendation that the state cancel the 2 percent income-tax cut that took effect Jan. 1.

"We keep the promise to the citizens of Maryland to implement the final phase of the income tax reduction," Mr. Rawlings said.

The budget was approved by the House on a 104-33 roll call. The Senate had passed it earlier in the day by a vote of 35-10.

The school funding measure must first pass the House and then go back to the Senate for approval of the compromise adopted by the House Ways and Means Committee at the request of House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr.

The two chambers were deeply divided on how far the General Assembly could go this year to boost aid to education.

The Senate voted to increase aid by $1.3 billion over six years. House leaders, with Mr. Taylor leading the way, said it would be fiscally irresponsible to approve the plan when tobacco taxes would only cover costs for the first two years.

Under Mr. Taylor's amendment, the annual increases could not go into effect after the first two years unless the legislature passed a resolution authorizing the additional money.

Mr. Taylor said this would add the fiscal responsibility House leaders had been seeking.

With the change, "we can get this landmark legislation up on the governor's desk before midnight Monday," said Mr. Taylor, Allegany County Democrat. "I think we all realize how inadequate and unequal our funding formulas are."

State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said Mr. Taylor's amendment is a good compromise because it means that the formula increasing aid will be written into law.

"Every system in the state of Maryland is impacted in a positive way by these funds," she said.

The compromise came about because supporters of the Senate bill had enough votes to kill the House bill in the Ways and Means Committee, said Delegate Mark K. Shriver, Montgomery County Democrat.

Lobbyists for anti-smoking groups said they were happy Mr. Taylor's proposal makes it much more likely that the cigarette tax will be increased to $1 a pack.

"We were not going to do this this year," said Michaeline Fedder of the American Heart Association.

But with the state facing a budget crunch and lawmakers looking for money to pay for education and other programs, health groups announced in January that they would push for an increase of 70 cents a pack.

"We thought, let something good come out of the budget deficit," Miss Fedder said.


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