The General Assembly's Joint Committee on Spending Affordability set a goal Thursday night of trimming Maryland's long-term budget shortfall — known as the structural deficit — in half during the legislative session that begins in January.

According to the Department of Legislative Services, meeting that goal would require about $550 million in cuts in projected spending unless revenues are increased.

Meanwhile, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller told reporters that he supports a smaller increase in transportation revenues than has been recommended by a blue-ribbon commission on transportation funding. That panel had recommended raising $870 million more each year to address a backlog of transportation projects. Miller, a Calvert County Democrat, said he would prefer to see a package of about $500 million in increases.

Generally, transportation revenue is considered separately from the general fund budget, which is where the spending affordability panel proposed making cuts in the projected total of $15.9 billion.

Last year, the committee set out to erase in three annual stages a structural deficit that had reached about $2 billion. The panel started the process by recommending a one-third cut. The legislature and Gov. Martin O'Malley further narrowed the gap by 44 percent with a combination of spending cuts and an alcohol tax increase.

To stay on that course, the committee adopted a resolution to cut the remaining $1.1 billion structural deficit by at least 50 percent in next year's budget, giving the governor the flexibility to decide whether to propose lowering spending or raising revenue.

On a party-line vote, the committee turned down a Republican effort to require the governor to reach that goal entirely through spending cuts. The recommendation isn't binding on the governor, but legislators have the authority to cut the budget to meet the goals.

On transportation, Miller said he would prefer to see O'Malley propose a simpler package than proposed by the commission, which suggested a long menu of possible fee and tax increases, including a 15-cent boost in the state's 23.5-cent gas tax. The Senate president did not give details, but he hinted that he would look favorably on a plan to impose a sales tax on gasoline at the wholesale level.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com