- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 3, 2002

ANNAPOLIS The Senate's fiscal committee has begun filling a huge hole in the Maryland state budget, and negotiators said almost everything is on the table.
"We are looking at a $1.2 billion to $1.4 billion gap," said Sen. Barbara Hoffman, Baltimore Democrat, chairwoman of the Budget and Taxation Committee. "I don't know if we can get there."
The Senate and House of Delegates have five weeks to finish the budget before the 2002 legislative session ends. They are prohibited by law from adopting a budget that has a deficit.
The committee began working on the budget on Friday.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening submitted a balanced budget in January, but legislative leaders do not like many of the steps he took to keep the budget in the black at a time when state revenues have virtually stopped growing because of the recession.
They quickly rejected his plan to save $177 million over 18 months by delaying a 2 percent income tax cut that took effect on Jan. 1. And members of the budget committees believe the state could wind up in even worse financial condition in the next year or two because Mr. Glendening dipped into various reserve funds in the treasury instead of holding the line on spending.
Mrs. Hoffman and Delegate Howard P. Rawlings, Baltimore Democrat, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said right from the beginning that it would be very difficult to keep the budget balanced.
The job could get even tougher next week when the Board of Revenue Estimates gives its final projections on how much money the state will collect between now and June 30, 2003.
Sen. Robert Neall, Anne Arundel Democrat, said he is expecting a further drop in revenues of about $200 million, creating a deeper hole that will have to be filled to keep the budget balanced.
"The write down of the estimates makes this more difficult," Mr. Neall said.
As a result, the Budget and Taxation Committee will have to cut the governor's plans in some key areas of the state government, Mr. Neall said.
Mr. Neall's budget subcommittee is considering recommending that there be no increase in funding for higher education.
"I don't want to go backward," Mr. Neall said, but added that the state's universities and colleges got big increases the last two years and may have to settle for the status quo until the economy picks up.
Environmentalists are worried about plans to slash funding for some of the state's key programs, such as land preservation and water-quality improvement. Advocates for people with mental illnesses and mental handicaps worry that the committees will take more money from programs they say are already severely underfunded.
As a result of the budgetary problems, support is growing in the legislature for an increase in the state cigarette tax that now stands at 66 cents a pack.
Legislation has been introduced to increase the tax by 70 cents, but the most likely amount at this point seems to be 36 cents.
"People are in favor of the cigarette tax," Mrs. Hoffman said. "The only people who aren't in favor of it are the smokers."
Mr. Glendening would gladly sign the tax bill, but is not supporting it directly because of a pledge he made in 1999 when the tax was increased by 30 cents a pack.
The governor has begun to go public with his opposition to legislative proposals to cut funding for areas such as the environment and higher education, which are among his top priorities.
Mike Morrill, Mr. Glendening's communications director, said there is no need for the deep cuts being considered by the legislative committees.
While the state is going through tough economic times, Mr. Morrill said that it is "is in much better position than other states."


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