- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 5, 2009

ANNAPOLIS | Maryland lawmakers on budget committees gingerly started reconciling differences Saturday in separate versions of the state’s operating budget approved by the House and Senate.

Most of the tougher decisions were delayed for further negotiations, but lawmakers made some initial steps in the first meeting of the budget conference committee.

None of the decisions made Saturday were binding, and the overall process remains fluid.

“Everything that was difficult is still difficult,” said Warren Deschenaux, director of the Maryland Department of Legislative Service’s Office of Policy Analysis, who leads lawmakers through the long lists of cuts. “This is a jigsaw puzzle. We work around the edges.”

The Senate has cut more than $900 million in fiscal years 2009 and 2010 through the budget legislation and a companion budget reconciliation bill; the House has cut about $825 million.

The committee decided not to freeze tuition at community colleges and to limit the funding formula to 3.8 percent growth, which will represent a reduction of about $34 million compared to what the initially proposed formula would have brought.

An in-state-tuition freeze at four-year public universities remains up in the air, pending further budget negotiations.

Local governments will be absorbing significant cuts.

The committee agreed to a House decision to reduce $10.7 million in funds for a local jail reimbursement program, instead of a $5 million reduction advocated by the Senate. The committee went with the Senate’s decision to cut $2.4 million in funding to local libraries.

But decisions on larger cuts to local governments were delayed.

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.

The committee also put off a decision on state funding for stem cell research. Under the budget bill amended by the Senate, money for the research would be cut by $13 million, while the House cut none of the $18.4 million total.

The committee is dropping an amendment to the budget bill by the Senate that would have prohibited the state’s Motor Vehicle Administration from spending any money to issue a driver’s license to people who can’t document that they are in the country legally.

The decision not to follow through was made after the attorney general’s office issued an opinion saying the amendment wasn’t valid, because it represented a substantive change to the law that’s not acceptable in a budget amendment.

The committee’s decision does not affect the overall debate on big differences between the House and Senate on lawful-presence legislation, but dropping the amendment moves the debate to another venue away from the budget. The Senate has voted in separate legislation to deny state ID to illegal immigrants, but the House approved a measure to create a two-license system, so a separate conference committee will be needed to work on the difference.

Lawmakers are scheduled to resume negotiations Monday, focusing on the budget reconciliation measure, which has a separate conference committee. The reconciliation bill is required to help make up for a $1.2 billion plunge in revised revenue projections last month.

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