- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Maryland Senate gave preliminary approval Wednesday to a budget with $900 million in spending cuts, $75 million more than the House of Delegates passed last week.

“The economy is going through difficult times, and we’ve seen record declines in general fund revenues. We’ve had to work extra hard in order to develop this spending plan,” said Sen. Ulysses Currie, Prince George’s Democrat and chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.

The budget cuts come mostly from state aid for local governments. The biggest will chop about $160 million for local transportation projects, such as road paving and snow removal programs.

The General Assembly must plug a $2 billion budget hole over the next two years. The Maryland Board of Public Works announced last month that tax revenues for the same time period were shorter by nearly $1.1 billion than original projections. The legislature must submit a balanced budget by April 6.

The House had already passed its version of the budget last week, which incorporated about $825 million in cuts. Major differences in the House version include a $102 million cut in local transportation aid, about $58 million less than what the Senate calls for, and a $60 million cut in income tax revenues local governments can keep, which the Senate does not propose. The Senate also created a $142 million cash reserve that can be tapped if the economy worsens, compared with a $51 million reserve created by the House.

Those differences will have to be worked out in a conference committee this weekend.

The physical drain of the budget negotiations was on full display Wednesday morning after Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Prince George’s Democrat, became visibly irritated with some Republican lawmakers who had tried to adopt an amendment on the Senate floor instead of through the budget committee in late morning.

Sen. Nancy Jacobs, Cecil Republican, wanted to amend the bill to regulate retention bonuses for college professors, but she was abruptly cut off by Mr. Miller, who ordered that the amendment not be adopted by the budget committee.

“That was extremely rude. I’m elected in the same way he is and I have the right to speak my mind. It’s outrageous what [Mr. Miller] did,” she said. Her amendment failed by a vote of 39-8.

Mr. Miller said he “overreacted.”

Senate Republicans did manage to add an amendment to bar state funding for a “two-tier” driver’s license system approved by the House to deal with illegal immigrants. The House and Senate have passed conflicting bills on the issue, and the Senate move Wednesday was intended to use the budget bill to strengthen its position.

The House’s more-liberal approach would prevent illegal immigrants from obtaining a new license but it would allow those who already have licenses to renew them with a lesser form of identification. Such a license would not comply with the federal Real ID Act and would not permit entry to airports and federal buildings.

The House bill is favored by Gov. Martin O’Malley.

The Senate bill forbids anyone without proof of lawful status from obtaining or renewing a license.

“It [the amendment] assures that we incorporate what the Senate body had overwhelmingly approved,” said Sen. Andrew P. Harris, Baltimore County Republican. The amendment passed by a vote of 27-20.

The Senate also added a provision that will impose a two-year spending freeze on programs starting in 2011. The plan, which would save the state about $800 million, may have a serious impact on state colleges and universities that benefit from automatic spending increases.

“It shows the state that we’re serious about balancing the budget,” said Mr. Miller.

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