- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 16, 2004

ANNAPOLIS (AP) — The House of Delegates, over the objections of Republican lawmakers, approved an emergency bill yesterday that would strip the governor’s authority to make deep, emergency cuts in state spending.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. still could make cuts in the budget as head of the powerful state Board of Public Works, but the bill would require the three-member panel to hold public hearings first and would forbid cuts of more than 10 percent.

Delegates voted 90-48, mostly along party lines, to approve the legislation. A companion bill is being negotiated in a Senate committee.

“The legislature and the governor together make the laws, not the Board of Public Works,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Norman Conway, Wicomico Democrat and the bill’s sponsor.

The board, made up of Mr. Ehrlich, State Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp and State Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, has broad power to make cuts with no notice. It used the authority last summer to cut $208 million from the 2004 budget.

The bill reflects the legislature’s growing frustration with its minimal budget powers, which are the weakest of any state in the country.

Last week, the Senate nearly approved a constitutional amendment to give the General Assembly the power to increase items in the governor’s budget and move money from one program to the other. The legislature currently has the power to do neither.

The House Ways and Means Committee yesterday approved Mr. Ehrlich’s bill to raise millions of dollars for transportation projects, but only after lawmakers cut revenue by about $100 million.

The administration’s transportation fund bill would have raised $320 million for road projects, but the committee vote to cut it to about $220 million.

Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver said the governor was disappointed that fees were cut from the legislation, but “at the very least, it’s progress.”

Delegates diverted traffic-violation fees and drunken-driving fees to a bill being considered in the Judiciary Committee. Removed from the bill altogether was a proposal to funnel taxes on rental cars, worth $32 million, into the fund. Several lawmakers favor a gas tax to fund road work instead of the miscellaneous fees called for in the governor’s bill.

The bill would generate $153 million by raising registration fees about $23.50 a year. Motorists would pay an average of $128 to register their cars every other year, an increase from the existing fee of $81. Truck owners would pay $72 more every other year.

Mr. Ehrlich talked about raising the gas tax, which has stayed at 23 cents a gallon for 12 years, when he ran for office two years ago. But he has scrapped the idea because of the uncertainty of fuel market prices. The fee increases are a more stable way to funnel money into a highway fund, he said.

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