- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 8, 2007

ANNAPOLIS (AP) - The annual legislative session most likely won’t be extended beyond its midnight deadline today, after lawmakers reached a tentative agreement on a budget plan.

The deal gives first-year Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, nearly all the funding that he requested for stem-cell research, higher education and school construction. And it delays some funding for the Intercounty Connector, a highway project championed by predecessor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican.

Mr. O’Malley met repeatedly with House and Senate leaders in the past few days to try to avert an extension.

“We’ve accomplished a great deal working together during the session to make a historic investment in public education, higher education, stem-cell research and open space,” said O’Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese. “The governor is extremely pleased.”

State law requires the budget be balanced. A special session would have been required if the General Assembly were unable to ratify a deal by midnight.

The $30 billion budget, which takes effect July 1, does little to address the structural deficit that Maryland faces in the next few years. It uses $1 billion from the state’s rainy-day fund, taking that reserve down to the minimum allowed by law.

State analysts predict that spending cuts, higher taxes, new revenue sources or a combination of the three will be required to close a $1.5 billion shortfall in the budget.

But for now, Mr. O’Malley can say he kept his promises to build schools and put more cash into Maryland’s colleges and universities.

The capital budget will provide the $400 million in school construction money that Mr. O’Malley had requested and will fully fund Program Open Space, which protects parks and conservation areas .

As part of the deal reached Friday, the House has agreed to delay for a year a $53 million payment for the Intercounty Connector, a long-planned toll road linking Interstate 95 in Prince George’s County with Interstate 270 in Montgomery County.

That concession by the House will have to be completed in a conference committee meeting today with Senate negotiators, then approved by the full legislature.

The funding delay won’t affect the road’s construction. But Delegate Norman H. Conway, Eastern Shore Democrat and the Appropriations Committee chairman, said it made no sense to add to next year’s budget problems. Mr. Conway pushed for deeper cuts in other areas, which senators initially rejected.

The Senate agreed to some of the cuts that House negotiators wanted to make in the University System of Maryland budget.

“We came, I would say, two-thirds of the way toward where the House wanted to be in cuts to higher ed, but we didn’t go all the way,” said Sen. Ulysses Currie, Prince George’s County Democrat and chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee.

The negotiations freed up enough money to give Mr. O’Malley $23 million for stem-cell research. He had asked for $25 million.

As a result of the deal, the state’s will have nearly $60 million in extra reserves. Mr. Currie said that would be enough for the moment.

“For the moment that’s the word,” he said. “This year is just a sideshow, if you will, compared to what we have before us.”

The biggest matter left to be settled this session is a living-wage law for state contracts.

The Senate Finance Committee voted 7-4 Saturday to back the bill, which would establish a two-tiered minimum wage, with workers in rural areas getting at least $8.50 an hour and people in urban areas getting $11.30 an hour.

If the bill passes, Maryland would become the first state with such a measure.

Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, Charles County Democrat and chairman of the Finance Committee, said the bill has been amended to ease the effect on small businesses and rural employers.

Senators agreed to exempt businesses with fewer than 10 employees as long as they don’t bid on contracts worth more than $500,000.

Other measures awaiting final resolution before tonight’s adjournment include the statewide smoking ban and a bill that would prohibit people from tying up their dogs outside overnight.

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