Gov. Martin O'Malley's budget for next year sailed through the Senate on Wednesday after an unusually brief debate, seen by some as a sign of the state's improved fiscal condition.
Senators voted 42-5 to pass the $36.8 billion budget and send it to a conference committee with the House. All 35 Democrats and seven Republicans voted in favor of the budget, which comes close to eliminating what was once a nearly $2 billion long-term revenue shortfall.
"I can't remember any time the budget was adopted by a larger margin." said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.
Unlike the current budget, which runs through June 30, next year's is not accompanied by tax increases to bring it into balance.
Miller put the bill on a fast track, holding both a preliminary and a final vote on a single day. He told senators he wants to start negotiations with the House quickly in order to avoid a repeat of last year's end to the 90-day session, when contentious budget negotiations dragged into the final hours of the final day. As a result of that chaotic conclusion, companion bills to the budget did not pass before time ran out, resulting in a special session to pass a budget fix.
"We're not going to duplicate the bad results of the end of the session last year," Miller said. He said there are still "stark" differences with the House over such matters as pensions and education aid to rural counties, but he said the gap is not as great as last year's. Negotiators also have more than twice as much time to work out their differences as they did last year, when talks did not begin until a week before the last day of the session. This year's session ends April 8.
O'Malley issued a statement welcoming the vote on what he called his "balanced, fiscally responsible" budget.
"I applaud the bipartisan passage in the Senate and look forward to continued progress as legislators work out the remaining differences in the days ahead," he said.
Before the final vote, Republican senators put up a token resistance during a budget amendment process that took less than an hour — far less time than it usually takes. They offered only six amendments — one agreed to by the budget committee and five rejected by wide margins.
In contrast to past years, none of the GOP amendments focused on the overall size of the budget. Instead, they focused on such policy issues as school security, abortion and stem cell research.
Senate Minority Leader E.J. Pipkin, an Eastern Shore Republican, said the high level of GOP support for the budget reflects the fact that more revenue is coming in because of past years' tax increases.
"This year was different," he said. "This year was about dividing up the pie."
Pipkin himself opposed the budget, complaining that it grows by $1 billion over this year's spending level.
But Sen. David R. Brinkley, a Frederick County Republican, cast an aye vote after successfully amending the bill to protect rural school systems.
"We gotta have a budget and we've cleaned this one up as best as can be expected," he said.
Brinkley said Republicans were saving their fire for the O'Malley-supported transportation revenue bill, which includes an increase in taxes on gasoline. That bill is now in the House, but is expected to be debated in the Senate next week.