- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 31, 2009

ANNAPOLIS | Leaders in the Maryland House of Delegates said Friday they will aim to leave the state with a budget cushion that is at least five times as high as the one proposed by the governor.

Given the state’s budget problems and potential for the economy to worsen, House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, and other leaders will require an automatic review of any proposed legislation that will cost the state money.

Lawmakers will be spending much of the General Assembly’s 90-day session balancing the state’s books to bridge a $2 billion budget deficit. Maryland also is facing a roughly $400 million deficit for the current fiscal year, which ends July 1.

Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley last week recommended setting $46 million aside in his budget as fund balance. But House Appropriations Committee Chairman Norman Conway, Wicomico Democrat, said he’ll push for a budget cushion of at least $200 million to $250 million.

“That means tough scrutinizing of everything that is in this budget,” he said.

A nonpartisan state budget expert has told legislators they should consider leaving at least 10 times what Mr. O’Malley proposed - or $460 million.

Mr. Busch said it was “highly unlikely” that the state could avoid future cuts between the end of the legislative session in mid-April and January 2010 with only the $46 million in-fund balance that Mr. O’Malley proposed.

Typically, if state revenues don’t meet expectations and additional budget cuts are necessary after the legislature adjourns, they are made by the state’s three-person Board of Public Works: State Treasurer Nancy Kopp, Comptroller Peter Franchot and Mr. O’Malley, all Democrats.

“We feel it’s important that the elected officials throughout the state have some say in what the budget looks like,” Mr. Busch said.

The House Appropriations Committee also will review roughly $15 million to $30 million in unused but authorized funds for bond projects, some of which have languished since 1984.

House Speaker Pro Tem Adrienne Jones, Baltimore County Democrat, said she would lead a very careful review of the untapped funds to see if it’s possible to “free up some of that money.”

Mr. O’Malley’s budget assumed the state would receive $350 million from the federal government’s stimulus package being debated in Congress, but Mr. Busch and Mr. Conway urged caution about pinning too many hopes on federal aid.

“There is quite a bit to be done yet before we know what’s going to be what,” Mr. Conway said.

Mr. Busch said he hopes to put any federal aid toward maintaining existing programs, rather than developing new programs that would eat up state funds once the federal stimulus package expires.

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