- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 15, 2003

ANNAPOLIS — Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., while still withholding $651 million from state agencies, hasn’t yet decided how much of it to give back or what permanent cuts to make to the current budget, his budget secretary told legislators yesterday.

Budget Secretary James “Chip” DiPaula said the money being withheld is in reserve, but warned legislators that agencies may be barred from spending it at least until the General Assembly meets in January. That suggestion, and others from Mr. DiPaula, got a cold reception from many Democratic members of the House Committee on Appropriations and the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.

It was legislators’ first chance to meet publicly with a member of Mr. Ehrlich’s Cabinet since news broke that the governor was holding back money the General Assembly allocated.

“We don’t live in a dictatorship,” said Delegate Peter Franchot, Montgomery County Democrat. He told Mr. DiPaula that Mr. Ehrlich is acting like a “gunslinger” and is using unilateral action that violates the checks and balances of state government. Keeping the money until January also gives Mr. Ehrlich unfair leverage over the legislature, he said.

“These are funds that the legislature allocated. We have the authority to legislate the budget,” Mr. Franchot said, vowing to work in next year’s session to strip the governor of the power to withhold money.

Last month, Mr. Ehrlich directed the state comptroller’s office to temporarily withhold more than $651 million from state agency budgets for the 2004 fiscal year, which began July 1. That budget had been approved by legislators in the session that ended in April.

But soon after lawmakers left town, Mr. Ehrlich announced he would start cutting spending quickly to deal with the anticipated shortfall of $1 billion for fiscal 2005. He has warned of total reductions of about 7.5 percent, or $450 million.

Mr. DiPaula said most of the cuts to be announced likely will be administrative. He has said the reductions would be released in mid-July, but yesterday pushed that announcement back to the end of July.

Giving similar presentations to both committees, Mr. DiPaula emphasized the importance of spreading budget cuts out over the current year and next year. The projected shortfall will be about 17 percent of the budget, excluding Medicaid and money for grade schools.

Warren Deschenaux, the legislature’s chief fiscal adviser, also gave lawmakers a bleak picture of deficits stretching into 2008.

“This is a measure of the amount of work that will have to be done to meet your constitutional obligation,” of passing balanced budgets, Mr. Deschenaux said. “It’s not a trivial task, as you can see.”

Mr. Ehrlich directed state agencies to analyze their budgets, rank programs and recommend cuts, said Mr. DiPaula, whose office then assigned 15 budget analysts to review the proposals.

“The governor views this as a spending problem,” Mr. DiPaula said.

Mr. Ehrlich received the analysts’ detailed recommendations two weeks ago and is reviewing them, Mr. DiPaula said. He’ll ask his fellow members of the Board of Public Works, Comptroller William Donald Schaefer and Treasurer Nancy Kopp, to approve his cuts.

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