Tuesday, January 17, 2006

ANNAPOLIS (AP) — Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. yesterday proposed a $29.6 billion budget that will boost spending on a range of programs, drawing fire from Democrats, who said he is putting the state’s fiscal future in jeopardy with an election-year spending spree.

The budget for fiscal 2007, which begins July 1, will increase to $29.6 billion from $24.6 billion.

Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, is adding about $1 billion of the increase to state reserve funds that will be saved to protect Maryland’s AAA bond rating and guard against deficits.

The Spending Affordability Committee recommended a spending growth ceiling of 8.9 percent for fiscal 2007. Mr. Ehrlich’s budget proposes an increase of almost 10.5 percent.

The Democrat-controlled legislature has made a point in the past of holding the budget increase to the spending affordability level, even when exceeded by previous Democratic governors and by Mr. Ehrlich.

House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve, Montgomery Democrat, said the legislature would have to cut about $250 million from the governor’s budget this year — an election year — to stay within the guidelines.

“He’s shoveling cash out the car door to get re-elected,” Mr. Barve said.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said the governor is proposing the biggest spending increase in the history of Maryland. “This is an election-year budget. It’s as simple as that,” the Prince George’s Democrat said.

Republicans defended the budget, saying the governor is trying to catch up with unmet needs that built up the three previous years, when the state was struggling to balance the budget amid slow revenue growth.

“There isn’t one frivolous thing in this budget,” said Cecilia Januszkiewicz, Mr. Ehrlich’s budget secretary.

House Minority Leader Anthony J. O’Donnell said he would like to have used more of the state’s $1.2 billion surplus to give money back to taxpayers, but the governor “is catching up on some areas where, because of fiscal constraints, we’ve had to make some cuts.”

“He has proven that he’s fiscally prudent,” the Calvert Republican said. “I think the governor, as usual, has taken the middle road.”

Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus said much of the spending increase, about $460 million, is a result of a law passed by the legislature before Mr. Ehrlich took office mandating a huge increase in state school aid.

“It’s disingenuous for them to attack the governor when they forced the spending on him,” the Eastern Shore Republican said.

Mr. Ehrlich said his budget was a responsible one that puts aside a lot of money for the future.

“We will not go on a spending binge,” he said. “We will fund our priorities.”

At a briefing on the budget, Mr. Ehrlich’s staff handed out a four-page list of increased spending in areas such as health, education, the environment, public safety and business development.

Mr. Ehrlich said he also set aside $670 million to be used to guard against economic downturn. That does not include an additional $644 million maintained in the state’s rainy-day fund to protect Maryland’s AAA bond rating.

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