- The Washington Times - Friday, March 18, 2005

ANNAPOLIS — House Democratic leaders yesterday said they had improved Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.’s proposed budget by lowering the property tax rate, increasing funds for school construction and restoring money for civil servants’ health insurance.

They also defended budget cuts that Republican lawmakers say were aimed at firing state workers hired by Mr. Ehrlich.

“We made the tough decisions, prioritized the things we think are important to the citizens of Maryland,” House Speaker Michael E. Busch said at a press conference before the formal presentation of the budget bills to the full chamber.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Norman H. Conway said personnel cuts were made strictly to reduce spending. “Nobody was targeted,” the Wicomico County Democrat said.

In revising the governor’s budget, which would cut 354 vacant posts and 139 filled positions, the Appropriations Committee eliminated an additional 419 vacant and 55 filled positions.

Republican lawmakers contend that many of the additional filled positions were recent hires by the Ehrlich administration.

“They can say what they want, but there were some [cuts] that were targeted and there is no ifs, ands or buts about it,” House Minority Leader George C. Edwards said. “These people you know are appointed by the governor or [his] secretary. You know these are administration people.”

Administration officials have said they expect the Senate to restore the positions in its budget.

The House next week is scheduled to debate and vote on the $25 billion spending plan before the Senate considers the budget. State law mandates that both chambers agree on a budget by the final day of the legislative session, April 11.

The House budget would cut more than $511 million from the governor’s proposal, divert an additional $60 million to land preservation programs and an additional $125 million to school construction, and reallocate an extra $100 million to cover the rising cost of health insurance for state workers.

The budget also would repeal a 4.8 percent increase to the state property-tax rate adopted in 2003 by the Board of Public Works, which consists of the governor, Comptroller William Donald Schaefer and State Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp.

Maryland law requires the state property tax cover the cost of debt service on state bond issues, but previous administrations subsidized a lower property-tax rate with general fund revenues.

The House budget earmarks about $100 million to cover the debt payments this year. However, a higher tax rate or alternative budget modification might be necessary to balance the fiscal 2007 budget. It could force Mr. Ehrlich to consider raising the rate next year in the midst of a re-election campaign.

“They are just trying to twist it to make it look like they decrease taxes and the governor wants to increase taxes,” said Mr. Edwards, Garrett County Republican.

• • •

The Senate on Thursday amended the slots bill passed by the House, revising it until it exactly resembled the bill the Senate initially passed earlier this year. The Senate then sent the amended bill back to the House, where prospects for a compromise are in doubt.

The Senate language would allow up to 15,500 slot machines in seven locations around the state. The House bill calls for 9,500 slot machines in four locations.

Mr. Busch has said he won’t name a committee to negotiate a compromise because support for slots is so slim in the House.

Three Democratic senators changed their votes on slots. Lisa Gladden and Verna Jones, both of Baltimore, voted for slots earlier this year but voted no Thursday. Thomas “Mac” Middleton of Charles County switched sides and voted in favor of the bill.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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