- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 29, 2016

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) - The Maryland General Assembly passed the state’s $42 billion budget on Tuesday following negotiations that went more smoothly than in past years - thanks in large measure to a surplus of more than $400 million.

The Senate voted 45-0 and the House voted 130-7 for the spending plan for the next fiscal year, after House and Senate negotiators worked out some minor differences Monday.

“Fundamentally, it went very smoothly,” said Sen. Edward Kasemeyer, a Baltimore County Democrat who chairs the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.

One of the main differences involved a proposal by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan to create a $5 million tax-credit program for people who donate money to private schools. The Senate approved the plan, but the House amended it to create a $5 million scholarship program for private school students from low-income families, to be administered by the Maryland State Department of Education.

House Appropriations Committee chairwoman Del. Maggie McIntosh, D-Baltimore, said a seven-member advisory board will oversee the program, and that the scholarships will be awarded based on need.

The governor said he approved of the change.

“It is especially exciting to see that both the Senate and House are backing our fight to provide scholarships for students from low-income families to attend nonpublic schools,” Hogan said in a statement.

Hogan expressed concerns, however, about the legislature’s decision to spend about $80 million that initially was intended for the Rainy Day Fund. Even after the expenditure, the fund will still have about $1 billion in it, and the state also will have more than $400 million in reserves.

Modest tax-relief proposals are being considered in legislation separate from the budget, with more work to be done between the two chambers.

In other business, the Senate delayed action on a contentious measure that would create a scoring system outlining priorities for transportation projects. Democrats say the change is needed to increase transparency in the state’s transportation funding process.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said a measure that already has passed the House has been changed by the Senate to allow the governor’s transportation secretary to decide which weight he wants to put on criteria in the scoring system.

“We want objective criteria to say how it should be spent, and if you want to spend it otherwise, then simply tell us why,” Miller, D-Calvert, said.

But Republicans say the bill will erode local impact and steer greater focus to projects in more highly populated parts of the state at the expense of rural areas.

Republicans also opposed a Senate panel’s decision to vote the measure to the Senate floor Monday night, ahead of a hearing that had been scheduled for Tuesday. Doug Mayer, a spokesman for Hogan, said moving the bill forward without the hearing “would be laughably ironic if it wasn’t so transparently political.”

“Governor Hogan’s six-year transportation plan is incredibly balanced - but this legislation represents a radical change from that approach and would create an incredibly unbalanced plan,” Mayer said.

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