- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 12, 2007

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland’s public college students will see bigger class sizes and fewer professors because of budget cuts approved yesterday, school officials said.

The $12 million in cuts for the University System of Maryland was discussed along with dozens more cuts as the Board of Public Works unanimously approved $128 million in total cuts to this year’s budget. Combined with unspent money, the elimination of vacant jobs and reduced federal spending, the state will decrease spending by $280 million this year.

Joe Vivona, associate vice chancellor for administration and finance, said the universities will “let class size increase slightly” and hire fewer adjunct professors, but they will not raise tuition to make the cut.

Mr. Vivona’s explanation was part of a morning hearing by the board to learn more about the cuts, which were suggested by Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, to help hold costs down because the state faces a projected deficit between $1.4 billion and $1.5 billion next fiscal year. Because this year’s budget has already been passed into law, the Board of Public Works must sign off on changes to it.

Comptroller Peter Franchot had more than an hour of questions about the cuts before voting to approve them. He seemed especially concerned about $46.7 million in cuts to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which helps pay for health care for the poor. That agency plans reductions in Medicaid spending, though no one will be kicked off the program entirely.

“Our goal was to achieve these cuts … with a minimal effect on individuals,” said agency Secretary John Colmers. The cuts include a continuation of so-called “day limits,” in which Medicaid covers only a certain number of days in a hospital for a procedure; any extra days must be swallowed by the hospital. The agency had hoped to eliminate those day limits.

Mr. Franchot, a Democrat, said he had serious concerns about cutting health care at all given the already dire need for better health coverage. However, he ultimately voted for the cuts.

“There is a problem, a big problem in our country” with health care, Mr. Franchot said. “It really begs the question, who are we as a state and a nation?”

He also raised questions about a decision to cut $2 million from foster care. A state official explained that money would come from preventive measures to decrease the number of children who need foster care help, but Mr. Franchot worried about the move to spend less on “the most vulnerable” children.

“How do you defend that?” he asked.

All three members of the board — Mr. O’Malley, Mr. Franchot and Treasurer Nancy Kopp — used the occasion to call for tax increases to prevent even more cuts to state government. Because Maryland is banned by law from running a deficit, state fiscal planners must either cut more or raise taxes to meet the projected deficit, a result of spending growing faster than state tax receipts.

Mr. O’Malley made a similar tax pitch to the one he has made many times before. The governor said his staff would keep looking for efficiencies and cuts, but that eventually taxes would have to be raised so “working people don’t take it on the chin” in higher fees for various services.

He concluded that Marylanders would prefer higher taxes to deep cuts — although, as in previous speeches, the governor declined to elaborate on what taxes he’ll propose in coming months.

“We can, I suppose, theoretically balance this budget entirely by cuts, but when we’re done, we won’t be headed toward that sort of Maryland that all of us carry in our hearts,” Mr. O’Malley said.

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