Friday, September 14, 2007

ANNAPOLIS — House lawmakers said yesterday that they are looking for new ways to deal with mandated spending on education and health care as they attempt to cut Maryland‘s projected $1.3 billion budget shortfall.

But whether work is completed in a special session this year or in the regular session in January remains uncertain.

“Right now, our priority is addressing the state’s fiscal problems, and that has to take priority over everything else,” said Delegate Norman H. Conway, Eastern Shore Democrat and Appropriations Committee chairman.

Mr. Conway said the update yesterday would be the first of many over the next few months as House lawmakers prepare to close the shortfall.

Mandatory spending increases account for about two-thirds of the state’s $15 billion general fund.

Spending mandates work to maintain government programs when budgets are tight but limit how much lawmakers can cut, analysts said.

“I think the legislature probably has gone too far with mandates,” said Delegate Steven R. Schuh, Anne Arundel Republican. “However, I think the solution to this problem is much larger than simply rolling back mandates or tweaking existing mandates.”

The majority of mandatory spending goes to education, a sacred cow in Maryland politics.

As governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, often was attacked by Democrats for not completely funding the state’s largest increase in mandatory spending for education — the $1.3 billion Thornton plan — when the budget was tight.

Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat who unseated Mr. Ehrlich in the November election, said he wants to cap Thornton spending increases planned for next year, which total almost $300 million.

Budget analysts have included $40 million for the formula known as the Geographic Cost of Education Index, which many lawmakers call a giveaway to the state’s second wealthiest jurisdiction: Montgomery County.

House budget leaders told committee members to prepare for more briefings in the next few months.

The committee will meet next week with the House Ways and Means Committee and Senate Budget and Taxation Committee to discuss the state’s transportation budget.

Mr. O’Malley said earlier this summer that he would like to increase transportation spending but has not presented a plan.

Senate budget leaders also have a busy schedule.

Because of the increase in budget work, delegates wondered yesterday whether they would be back for a special session.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, continues to publicly oppose a special session. He also rejects the idea of legalized slot machines as a way to help close the budget shortfall.

Mr. O’Malley and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Southern Maryland Democrat, support a special session and legalized slots.

Also among the governor’s suggestions for closing the budget gap are increases in the corporate income tax, sales tax and cigarette tax.

He said last week that he will release a plan by the end of this month.

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