- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 31, 2011

ANNAPOLIS | Maryland Senate and House negotiators met in conference for the first time Thursday to reach an agreement on the fiscal 2012 budget, with the biggest battles expected over funding for higher education, property valuation costs and changes in the state’s retiree prescription-drug program.

The joint conference committee met to reconcile dozens of changes in language and spending made by the Senate this week to a budget passed last week by the House.

The Senate most notably restored $6.1 million of the $8.1 million in university funding slated to be cut by the House, changed the drug program to cut an additional $10.2 million and nearly doubled the shift in property valuation costs to counties, from $15.9 million to $28.6 million.

The Senate also passed an increase in the state’s alcohol sales tax, which will be considered separately from the budget and debated in the House.

Negotiators met for about 2 1/2 hours, and held many of their more important differences for later discussion. They are expected to meet Friday and will likely meet Saturday.

The negotiators were able to compromise on a House proposal to cut 650 currently vacant state jobs and save $15 million by electing to cut just 450 of the positions and save an estimated $5 million.

Each committee consists of five members and several advisers. All conferees come from the House Appropriations and Senate Budget and Taxation committees, which were the two committees that reviewed the budget.

The 2011 Assembly session concludes April 11.

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