- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 11, 2007

ANNAPOLIS — Budget cuts announced by Gov. Martin O’Malley this week will either stretch Maryland’s services or leave too much fat in government.

It depends on who you ask.

Moments after Mr. O’Malley, a Democrat, announced details of his cuts — more than $128 million to be approved today by the Board of Public Works — critics derided the plan, complaining that cuts threaten services to the most vulnerable Marylanders.

Meanwhile, Republicans said the cuts represent less than 1 percent of the current fiscal year budget and won’t do enough to plug a projected deficit that falls somewhere between $1.4 billion and $1.5 billion.

Mr. O’Malley said the cuts represent a first step in fixing the fiscal problem. When former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, took office in January 2003, he inherited a $4 billion structural deficit from his predecessor, Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat, and left office with more than $1.8 billion in the state savings account without raising sales or income taxes.

Mr. O’Malley has blamed the current structural deficit on income tax cuts and an education funding expansion approved by lawmakers several years ago.

“We need to restrain spending,” Mr. O’Malley said yesterday, standing before charts showing where the money would come from.

The cuts include $128 million in current spending, plus the elimination of $60 million left unspent from last year. The governor’s staff also included federal money and other non-tax funds that won’t be spent to come up with a total reduction of $280 million.

Hardest hit will be the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which would be cut by $47 million under Mr. O’Malley’s plan. The cuts would mean an extension of hospital limits put on Medicaid patients, meaning the state will reimburse hospitals only for a certain period of time, depending on the medical condition. That cut shaves $17.2 million.

The agency also plans to reduce Medicaid reimbursement and to reduce nursing home funding 1.2 percent, saving $4.3 million.

The University System of Maryland would lose $12 million, opening the possibility that a tuition freeze promised for next academic year could end in future years.

Many state agencies will be asked to hold open vacant jobs, from five professors at Morgan State University to a geologist at the Department of Natural Resources. About 150 jobs would be cut, but most of those are already vacant.

Mr. O’Malley acknowledged that the cuts announced yesterday won’t be enough to solve the fiscal problem. Maryland is required by law to balance its budget, so officials must either cut more or raise taxes.

Mr. O’Malley said both are likely.

Republicans said the cuts weren’t nearly deep enough to make a difference in Maryland’s fiscal plight. Maryland Republican Party Chairman Jim Pelura said the governor is wrongly trying to act as if the cuts are significant.

“That’s a joke,” he said. “When you think about it, the $1.5 billion surplus we’re facing is less than 5 percent of the budget. Almost anyone could cut their budget 5 percent and not have serious repercussions from that. Any businessman could do that.”

Republicans in the legislature said they were planning an alternative budget to show how the budget gap could be erased without new taxes.

“My fear is that O’Malley will say, ‘Look, this was a difficult exercise. We’ve cut as much as we can, now we need to raise taxes,’ ” said Delegate Christopher B. Shank, Washington County Republican, “There needs to be a lot more belt-tightening.”

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