- The Washington Times - Friday, February 22, 2008

ANNAPOLIS — A leading House lawmaker is trying to curb spending bills in the 2008 General Assembly while the state attempts to close the remainder of an estimated $1.5 billion shortfall.

“I remind everybody we still have a gap and that gap has to be closed,” said House budget leader Norman H. Conway, Eastern Shore Democrat. “You can see it is easy for people to forget. I’m trying to keep the awareness out there that we still have not closed the gap, even though we did a lot” during the special General Assembly session.

Lawmakers in the Democrat-controlled Assembly were summoned to Annapolis by Gov. Martin O’Malley in October for the special session. Mr. O’Malley called the session to resolve the shortfall after he did not address the issue in his first Assembly session.

The lawmakers increased taxes by $1.4 billion, proposed $550 million in spending cuts and approved a plan to legalize slot machines to generate state revenue. They also increased spending on health care, transportation and higher education, which ended the session without covering the remaining $331 million in the estimated shortfall.

As a result, House lawmakers this year kept an informal cap on bills expected to increase state spending by $250,000 or more.

Members of the House Appropriations Committee enacted the cap during the tenure of former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, when it was clear the state faced a shortfall.

The Senate enacted a cap last year on bills that increase spending by $200,000 or more when the shortfall started to reach an alarming number.

“The problem is tons of people put in bills that they don’t think have large [price tags] by themselves,” said former Sen. P.J. Hogan, who served as vice chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee until last summer. “But it’s a million here, a million there and all of the sudden you’ve got real money.”

Proposals from Mr. O’Malley and Assembly leaders frequently break the cap.

Mr. O’Malley’s proposal to create a Department of Information Technology, which analysts expect will cost more than $600,000, is expected to face little resistance.

Republican lawmakers agree with the caps during tight times, but are concerned about bills that under-estimate costs to dodge the cap.

Delegate Gail H. Bates, the ranking Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, said she was surprised when the bill passed last year to increase the minimum wage for many workers had an estimated cost of $138,000. Comptroller Peter Franchot estimates the law this year would cost his office alone $760,000.

“I have a problem when the fiscal notes are ‘lowballed’ to get a bill passed,” said Mrs. Bates, Howard Republican.

Mr. O’Malley has largely moved past the budget problems since signing the new taxes into law. He is supporting a proposal to curtail carbon emissions, testifying on behalf of expanded DNA collections and meeting with lenders about the home-foreclosure issue.

However, O’Malley aides say the governor has not forgotten the budget issue.

“The governor is concerned about it and is well aware of it and is waiting to see what the revenue projections are in March,” said spokesman Rick Abbruzzese.

Lawmakers already plan to cut $100 million from the governor’s $31.6 billion budget proposal and are awaiting revenue estimates from the comptroller’s office next month. The results could lead to additional cuts of $100 million to $200 million.

“Gov. O’Malley and the legislature have placed the state in a very precarious position by massive tax increases and massive spending increases, both of which serve to jeopardize the state’s long-term fiscal viability,” said House Minority Leader Anthony J. O’Donnell, Southern Maryland Republican.

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