- The Washington Times - Friday, April 3, 2009

ANNAPOLIS | The Maryland Senate passed the state’s $13.8 billion operating budget Thursday with little debate but plenty of warnings that the state still faces years of tough choices - even after carving out hundreds of millions of dollars in budget reductions.

The Senate’s 40-7 vote sets the stage for budget committees to work out differences between the House version of the budget bill and the Senate’s, which includes more than $900 million in cuts in fiscal 2009 and 2010.

Sen. Lowell Stoltzfus, Eastern Shore Republican, supported the measure, but he described the current economic climate as the “worst” he has seen in Annapolis since becoming a senator in 1992. Despite big cuts, Mr. Stoltzfus said Maryland plugged about $1 billion from the federal economic recovery plan into the state’s base budget.

“I think it’s very, very important that we understand that we are in a heck of a lot of trouble in future years,” Mr. Stoltzfus said. “It’s going to be a problem, and we’d better be ready to face it. It’s a tsunami that’s coming our way.”

Sen. Richard S. Madeleno Sr., Montgomery Democrat and member of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee with Mr. Stoltzfus, said it was important to use the federal money to preserve jobs at a difficult time.

“If we did not have the federal funds as part of this budget, how many people would have been put out of work at the state or local level? And that would have only made the current economic downturn worse,” Mr. Madeleno said.

The Senate also approved a companion budget reconciliation bill necessary to balance the budget after a $1.2 billion plunge in revised revenue projections last month.

Since last June, revenue estimates have been revised downward by a total of $3.5 billion, largely because of declines in sales tax and income tax collections.

The Senate has cut more than $900 million in fiscal 2009 and 2010 through the two budget bills; the House has cut about $825 million.

Local governments are bearing big cuts.

The Senate wants to cut $162 million in state aid for local road maintenance, snow removal and road paving. The House has approved a $102 million reduction. The added $60 million cut in the Senate would offset a plan approved by the House to take about $60 million from local government collections on the state income tax.

Both versions of the budget maintain an in-state tuition freeze at public colleges and universities for the fourth straight year.

The Senate budget bill cuts more money to leave a $140 million fund balance, which is set aside in case the economy deteriorates further and state revenues continue to decline. The House version leaves about $51 million.

The state also is maintaining the 5 percent balance in its Rainy Day Fund, which is more than $650 million.

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