The Maryland Senate gave preliminary approval Wednesday to a $38.9 billion state budget that includes no new taxes while giving state workers a 2 percent cost-of-living raise. It is slightly leaner than the governor proposed.
The spending plan, due for a final Senate vote Thursday, increases overall expenditures by 3 percent over the current year, but less than the $39.2 billion budget Gov. Martin O'Malley proposed for fiscal 2015. When the measure clears the Senate, it will go to the House of Delegates, which is likely to adopt its own changes.
Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, chairman of the Budget & Taxation Committee, called it a "lean" budget. It essentially funds current services while providing for limited new initiatives, such as the O'Malley administration's proposed expansion of pre-kindergarten schooling.
The Senate budget proposes to close a $238 million revenue shortfall in part by trimming $100 million from the state's contribution to the state workers' retirement system, essentially doubling a reduction proposed by the governor. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller defended the pension cut, saying lawmakers remained committed to a long-term plan for bolstering the system's solvency. And he suggested that the alternative could have meant denying state workers pay raises.
Kasemeyer, a Democrat representing Baltimore and Howard counties, said the Senate plan would trim the state's structural deficit by $176 million. It would leave unspent $111 million in projected revenues, along with a "rainy day" fund of nearly $800 million for unanticipated fiscal crises.
Republican senators argued in vain to trim state spending even more. Sen. David R. Brinkley, the minority leader from Frederick and Carroll counties, proposed a one percent across-the-board cut of $162 million, arguing that the lingering structural deficit leaves a "big black cloud" over the state's fiscal health. But the Democratic majority rejected what Kasemeyer called a "meat cleaver approach."
Other GOP amendments that failed would have slashed public funding for poor women's abortions and eliminated or curbed state grants for stem-cell research.
Brinkley also argued for holding back $500,000 from Maryland's troubled health insurance exchange to force a performance audit by Oct. 1. He said he still wants legislative leaders to launch a special investigation of what went wrong, but he said voters deserve to get some kind of report on the botched rollout of the exchange before they vote for the next governor.
Sen. James N. Robey, a Howard County Democrat, countered that Brinkley's proposed holdup of exchange funding would "make a bad situation worse."
A Republican effort to restore money cut from a fund earmarked for Chesapeake Bay cleanup also failed. Sen. Bryan W. Simonaire of Anne Arundel County criticized shifting more than $100 million from the fund over the years to help balance the state's general budget. He said such diversions of supposedly dedicated funds feed public anger over new stormwater management fees imposed this year by the state's largest localities.
But Miller defended the fund diversions and pointedly warned environmental "wackos" not to criticize senators for supporting what he said was a necessary measure to shore up the state's finances.
Senators approved, though with a modest change, a budget provision that would stall new regulations of a major bay pollutant. The provision would bar restrictions on the use of phosphorus-rich animal manure as fertilizer until a study is made of their economic impact on the state's farmers and poultry industry.
The delay was sought by Eastern Shore lawmakers worried about the impact on growers there, but it was assailed by environmentalists, who said the rules are long overdue and scientifically justified.
Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George's County Democrat and leading environmental lawmaker, said he chose not to fight the delay. Instead he proposed broadening the study to look at possible benefits of the rules as well as their costs. His amendment also called for the legislature's environmental rather than budget committees to review the study.
The state's agriculture secretary said such a study was already planned and the restrictions could still begin phasing in by year's end.
Senate President Miller made clear he supported a delay, saying he would achieve one through legislation if not through the budget.
"We're going to do it either way," Miller said.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun