- Associated Press - Thursday, March 26, 2015

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) - The Maryland Senate voted unanimously Thursday for the state’s $40 billion budget.

Democrats and Republicans spoke positively about the bipartisanship that went into the Senate’s budget work, which hasn’t resulted in a unanimous vote in years.

“This is the 33rd budget I’ve worked on here, and I have to say this is probably the smoothest process since I’ve been here. The cooperation has been outstanding,” Sen. George Edwards, R-Garrett, said.

Lawmakers made extra cuts to restore scaled-back education funding initially proposed in Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s budget to help fill a $750 million shortfall. A 2 percent cost-of-living adjustment for state employees also has been restored. The House of Delegates already has passed the budget legislation. Now, the House and Senate will work out some differences between the two chambers before the legislative session adjourns on April 13.

Sen. James Rosapepe, D-Prince Georges, said the budget problems lawmakers grappled with this year were not as bad as during the years of the recession and its aftermath, making it easier to balance the budget.

“We do it by making decisions. We did that again this year, and I do commend Gov. Hogan,” Rosapepe said.

The Senate included $2 million to expand substance use treatment for heroin addiction. It also provided $6.5 million to maintain the current community mental health provider rates, and funding to partially restore rate reductions in Medicaid for psychiatric evaluation and management rates.

Part of the budget plan involves changing the state’s pension funding system. Some Republicans criticized the tapping of about half of a $150 million extra payment into the pension system, designed to shore up the state’s pension plan. Sen. Bryan Simonaire, R-Anne Arundel, pushed to have the money put back into the pension system in future years, but his proposal failed on a 15-31 vote.

Lawmakers have decided to move the state from the corridor pension system to the better-regarded actuarial system. Supporters say the state will still reach an 80 percent funding goal by 2023. The Senate also added a provision to the budget bill that will steer more money into the pension system. The “sweeper” amendment would direct some of the state’s leftover fund balance into the pension system. That would result in about $18.5 million extra in the current budget plan.

“This sweeper amendment is going to be very substantial for us in addition to the actuarial,” said Sen. Douglas J.J. Peters, D-Prince George’s.

Hogan said he remains concerned about reallocating funding originally intended for the pension system.

“As the budget process moves to conference committee, my administration will be seeking assurances from leadership in the Legislature to ensure that pension funding will be addressed in a responsible way,” Hogan said in a statement.

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