The House of Delegates gave preliminary approval Wednesday to a $38.7 billion budget that trims the governor's plan but still provides raises to state workers and levies no new taxes.
The House bill, scheduled for a final vote Thursday, would increase overall state spending 3.1 percent. It contains no major policy differences from the version the Senate passed two weeks ago. Both chambers made some cuts to Gov. Martin O'Malley's $39.4 billion plan.
Del. Norman H. Conway, Appropriations Committee chairman, said there was "remarkable agreement" on the budget between the two chambers, though House members did vote to restore a pair of health and economic development programs that the Senate wants to eliminate.
Differences must be resolved by a conference committee and approved by the House and Senate before the 90-day General Assembly session ends April 7.
Conway, an Eastern Shore Democrat, called the House plan "fiscally prudent and socially responsible." It would leave nearly $900 million in cash reserves while boosting state spending on schools, economic development, transportation and public safety. As the governor proposed, it also would give state workers 2 percent cost-of-living raises.
The budget includes almost $6.1 billion in state support for public schools, including a $4.3 million down-payment on an initiative to expand pre-kindergarten education. The state's colleges and universities would receive a nearly 8 percent increase in funding, which lawmakers said should be enough to limit tuition increases to 3 percent.
Delegates agreed with their Senate counterparts on a major budget-balancing issue — trimming a payment to shore up state workers' underfunded pension system. O'Malley had proposed reducing next year's planned $300 million contribution by one-third, but lawmakers reduced it by $200 million to help cover a drop in projected tax revenues. Legislators have vowed to restore pension contributions in a few years.
Without cutting outright, the House budget proposes to withhold funds to some agencies to force them to report on controversial programs. One million dollars would be held back from the state's problem-plagued health benefit exchange, for instance, until lawmakers get reports on enrollments and on how much has been spent and is projected to be spent to fix the system.
The state agriculture department would be barred from spending any money on regulations limiting the use of animal manure as farm fertilizer until the state submits a report on the economic impact. Eastern Shore chicken farmers and the poultry industry have complained they would be hurt by the rules, which are aimed at reducing polluted runoff into the Chesapeake Bay.
House members rejected a series of amendments, nearly all proposed by Republicans, that would trim spending 2 percent across the board or restrict or eliminate particular programs, such as the health exchange, taxpayer funding of abortions or stem cell research. One Democrat, Del. Charles Barkley of Montgomery County, also appealed unsuccessfully to restore the cuts in pension contributions, arguing that the government was breaking its pledge to state employees to shore up their retirement fund.
Buried amid the big-ticket items is $11 million in tax credits for films or television productions shot in Maryland. The company backing Netflix's popular "House of Cards" TV series, filmed mostly in the state, has warned it will cease filming here if it doesn't get enough tax credits. The amount the state could award was slated to drop from $22.5 million this year to $7.5 million next. The Senate has approved a bill authorizing $18.5 million, but that has yet to pass the House and neither chamber has budgeted that amount yet.
Several Republicans questioned giving a break to the Hollywood company bankrolling "House of Cards," while its star, Kevin Spacey, is reportedly due a multimillion-dollar salary increase. But Del. Wayne Norman, a Republican representing Harford County, joined Democrats in defeating that cut, noting that the series is filmed partly in his county and local businesses benefit.