- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 14, 2007

ANNAPOLIS — House lawmakers gave tentative approval yesterday to the fiscal 2008 budget that includes no tuition increases for state colleges but more than half a billion in increases for K-12 public schools.

The $30.3 billion budget, which starts in July, includes $567 million extra for public schools in the final year of an education-reform plan known as the Thornton Act.

The budget includes $400 million for school construction and more money for public colleges and universities, allowing them not to increase tuition for the next school year.

“This budget does a lot of good for the people of Maryland,” said Delegate Norman H. Conway, an Eastern Shore Democrat and chairman of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee.

The budget is about 2 percent more than the one last year. Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, proposed spending slightly more. But lawmakers in the Democrat-controlled General Assembly trimmed $290 million, saying they are concerned about the state’s structural budget deficit, which means state spending will outpace state income if trends continue.

Spending does not exceed revenue in this budget plan, as required in the state constitution, but it leaves little extra for future years.

Still, state Republicans said the plan will result in fiscal disaster and suggested a spending freeze.

Such a plan would result in a delay in Thornton money to school districts and likely tuition increases at state colleges. Republicans who backed the plan said the state doesn’t have much choice. Projections show the state could be $1.5 billion short next year.

“We have large, looming fiscal problems,” said Anthony J. O’Donnell, Southern Maryland Republican who brushed aside arguments Democrats already cut Mr. O’Malley’s proposal.

“If you have a dollar and you add 12 pennies to it, that’s not a reduction,” he said.

Democrats appeared stung by arguments they were being reckless with the state pocketbook. Mr. Conway said he tried his best to trim costs and still produce a “socially responsible” spending plan.

“I’d like to have a magic wand,” he said. “I’d love to be able to wave it and just have this settled.”

Republicans replied that Marylanders wouldn’t mind sacrificing some state services. Otherwise, they said, tax increases will be required next year.

Delegate Christopher B. Shank, Western Maryland Republican, said when families run into money troubles, they stop spending more.

Democrats said a complete freeze could endanger such valuable state services as education and medical care.

“This is a very lean budget brought in [by] the governor,” said Delegate John L. Bohanan Jr., Southern Maryland Democrat.

A final House vote is expected by tomorrow before the plan moves to the Senate.

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