- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 30, 2003

The Maryland Board of Public Works unanimously approved a plan yesterday to cut $208 million from this year’s budget to reduce a looming deficit.

The reductions will result in 82 state employees losing jobs and significant cuts to several state agencies and departments.

Among the biggest cuts are almost $90 million to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, $40 million to the University of Maryland System and $11 million to the state’s Department of Human Resources.

Other cuts to higher education in Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.’s plan include $9.7 million less in state money to community colleges and $3.6 million less for college scholarships.

Cuts to the 13 colleges and universities in the Maryland system will result in tuition increases.

For example, tuition at the system’s flagship College Park campus will increase $850 to $6,700 per year, which Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, called “the best deal in the universe.”

Comptroller William D. Schaefer and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp said they reluctantly approved the cuts.

“I don’t want to vote for any of these,” Mr. Schaefer said.

Mrs. Kopp said she was concerned about cuts to education, the state’s clean-needle program and other state initiatives, but agreed that “these are steps that have to be taken.”

“We are getting to the point where we are doing injury to this state by continuing to cut higher education,” she said. “It’s not easy, but these are tough times.”

No Health and Mental Hygiene employees will lose their jobs. The department administers Medicaid and other social-service programs.

But the Department of Human Resources — which regulates welfare, adoptions and foster care — must eliminate 225 vacant positions. Mr. Ehrlich’s plan eliminates 962 jobs, most of which are vacant.

State funding to counties was also cut.

Anne Arundel receives $2.8 million less; Baltimore County gets 2.8 million less and Prince George’s and Montgomery each $2.7 million less.

In all, more than $18.8 million was cut from municipalities across the state.

Mrs. Kopp said many of the municipalities have already raised taxes or dipped into their rainy-day funds, which the state has not done.

The cuts also mean supervisors will have to take over some of the security duties of correctional officers in state prisons, which was described as “not a great correctional practice” by Mary Ann Saar, state corrections secretary.

The state also will now spend less on antismoking ads and on drug- and alcohol-abuse programs. The health department will reduce payments in some cases to nursing homes and pharmacists. Funding also will be cut for some programs that serve young people, including after-school programs.

Budget Secretary James “Chip” DiPaula said the spending cuts will have no noticeable impact on the majority of Marylanders.

But the savings will “go a long way toward solving Maryland’s billion-dollar deficit,” he said.

Some critics did not agree that there was no alternative to more budget cuts.

“The governor had a choice. He vetoed a bill that would have brought in $135 million from corporate-tax loopholes,” said Sue Esty, a lobbyist for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, a Democrat, also criticized Mr. Ehrlich, saying he put the budget out of balance by vetoing the tax bill.

“He’s attacking the middle class,” Mr. Duncan said. “He’s attacking the working class to satisfy corporate interests.”

The 82 workers who will lose their jobs will get four weeks of administrative leave and will be eligible for state health insurance for up to 90 days.

Though the budget was already balanced for fiscal 2004, which began July 1, Mr. Ehrlich decided to cut spending even further this year to get a head start on solving a revenue shortfall for fiscal 2005 that was estimated to be as high as $1 billion.

Mr. DiPaula said most of the budget cuts are continuing expenditures that will carry forward to next year and will have a double impact, reducing spending by more than $400 million over two years. He also said the budget hole could be as much as half a billion dollars next year, but legislative fiscal advisers think it will be even higher.

Mr. DiPaula said the remaining fiscal problems will be taken care of in the budget the governor will submit to the legislature next January. He does not anticipate more spending reductions between now and the end of the year.

Mr. Schaefer and Mrs. Kopp told the governor the state cannot continue to balance its budget and pay for needed services without some sort of revenue increase.

“You are going to have to find a way to raise some taxes,” said Mr. Schaefer, who suggested expanding the sales tax to cover some of the items and services now exempted. “That wouldn’t violate your no-sales-tax increase promise,” he said.

Mr. Ehrlich did not respond directly to the talk about taxes, but put in another plug for legalizing slot-machine gambling at Maryland racetracks.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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