- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 6, 2008

ANNAPOLIS (AP) — The General Assembly yesterday approved Maryland’s $31.2 billion budget, cutting a total of more than $400 million from the budget initially proposed by Gov. Martin O'Malley.

The House and Senate both agreed to accept the report from a budget conference committee that hammered out some remaining differences between the two chambers.

The budget will include a general fund balance of about $235 million. When added to the state’s $740 million so-called “rainy-day fund,” Maryland will have $975 million in reserve — a goal lawmakers set in case the economy worsens and revenue projections drop in coming months.

This budget and the budget-reconciliation bills that are linked with it do not solve the problem completely for the future, said Sen. Ulysses Currie, Prince George’s Democrat, who chairs the Budget and Taxation Committee. The economy and our revenue picture will have to be monitored carefully, and our spending will have to be closely managed to keep it in line.

The budget includes about $227 million in general fund cuts, and another $50 million will be cut by July, pending final approval of a measure to repeal a tax on computer services.

Lawmakers kept some of Mr. O'Malley’s top priorities intact, preserving a tuition freeze in the University System of Maryland.

An expansion of Medicaid to parents, another product of the special session, will begin as scheduled in July. A health care expansion to small businesses was reduced from $30 million to $15 million.

The budget also includes $19 million, and possibly as much as $20 million, for stem-cell research, compared with Mr. O'Malley’s proposal for $23 million.

The extra $1 million will depend on whether money from the state’s cigarette restitution fund is higher than expected.

Another key O'Malley priority survived the budget process, even if it was slimmed down. A $50 million fund approved during November’s special session to battle pollution in the Chesapeake Bay was cut in half.

The $25 million will go to BayStat, an agency set up by Mr. O'Malley to oversee state departments whose work affects the Chesapeake.

Finding money in the budget for the Bay left one major environmental matter for lawmakers to resolve before concluding work tomorrow, and it was a big one: global warming.

The Senate has approved a bill to address climate change by slashing carbon-dioxide emissions 25 percent by 2020.

That bill was narrowly approved over the objections of manufacturers who fear the only way to meet carbon cuts would be to mandate pricey improvements at factories and power plants, possibly costing jobs or forcing higher utility bills.

The global-warming measure still awaits action in the House.

The matter could head to a last-day showdown. Steelworkers, who have fought the bill all term, are planning to descend on the State House tomorrow in a last-ditch effort to sink the global-warming bill.

Others predicted success for the global-warming measure, at least in some form.

Sen. Brian E. Frosh, Montgomery Democrat, said O'Malley-backed bills almost always succeed, especially this term.

If I were betting, Mr. Frosh said, I’d bet they all get worked out. It’s shaping up to be a very good session for the governor.

c Associated Press reporter Kristen Wyatt contributed to this report.



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