Summer Sale Extended! Get unlimited digital access for 13 weeks for $13.
News Opinion Op-Eds

Maryland's overstuffed budget bills

Everyone favors a balanced state budget. The people of Maryland expect the state to live within its means, and the state constitution requires the governor to submit a budget with revenues and spending in balance.

But, as demonstrated in the recently completed special session of the General Assembly, how a budget is balanced makes all the difference. The process for enacting bills that balance the budget is in need of serious reform.

Over the past 20 years, governors and General Assemblies have developed a bad habit of stuffing all sorts of loosely related spending and tax provisions into a catch-all bill called the Budget Reconciliation and Financing Act, or BRFA. The recent special session saw not only a BRFA bill but also a State and Local Revenue and Financing Act (SLRFA) packed with multiple forms of tax increases.

This is the sort of bill that you would expect to see in Congress — but not in the Maryland legislature.

Maryland's constitution has required since 1851 that "every Law enacted by the General Assembly shall embrace but one subject." The purpose of this requirement has been to allow legislators to consider each issue independently, on its own merits. It also affords the public a greater opportunity to provide meaningful input on each issue pending before the General Assembly. The use of such omnibus bills as the BRFA and SLRFA damages the transparency of the legislative process and violates the intent of the single-subject rule of the Maryland Constitution.

The Budget Reconciliation and Financing Act of 2012 was introduced during the regular 2012 session with 48 pages, and it had a 116-page fiscal note (complete with a table of contents). According to the Department of Legislative Services, the bill encompassed 55 actions: 11 fund balance transfers, 15 general fund enhancements, one redirection of dedicated revenues, 11 fund swaps and cost shifts, five mandate-relief provisions, six cost control/deferral provisions, three local relief provisions, and three other measures.

The only thing missing was a partridge in a pear tree.

Among the dozens of significant public policy changes included in the bill were: sharing teacher pension costs with local jurisdictions, major increases in individual income taxes, changes to local education aid and higher education funding, taking more than $50 million in employers' workers compensation premiums, and much more.

Although most legislators do not recall an era without BRFA bills, our state managed to have budgets enacted for more than 200 years without such a device. The normal budgetary process until the early 1990s was that the governor would submit a budget, and if the amount of the budget exceeded projected revenues, specified appropriations would be contingent on the enactment of separate legislation. If the separate legislation failed, the contingent appropriations would also fail.

In 1991, Maryland's attorney general surprised many by blessing the process embodied by the BRFA bill, thereby consolidating into one bill dozens of unrelated issues that are intended to reduce state expenditures or raise revenues necessary to balance the budget. Most legislative sessions of the past decade have seen a BRFA, and the bill has grown to the breaking point.

Many legislators are vexed by the BRFA process, as they are overwhelmed by the multitude of significant public policy changes on which they must cast one vote, for or against the bill. The public is likewise shortchanged in public hearings, as a witness is typically allowed two or three minutes to address multiple tax and spending issues. Some issues never receive adequate explanation or justification.

Some will contend that it is difficult to pass a balanced budget, noting that separate bills for each issue would make it more difficult to enact a state budget on time. We at the Maryland Chamber of Commerce disagree. Just as legislators passed balanced budgets for more than 200 years without a BRFA, our current senators and delegates have the ability to judge each issue on its own merits and pass the legislation necessary to balance the budget.

The Maryland Chamber believes the BRFA and SLRFA process has gotten out of hand. It is time to return to the good budgetary practices of an earlier era, with separate legislation for each contingent budget item, and each issue passing or failing on its merits.

Ron Wineholt is vice president of government affairs for the Maryland Chamber of Commerce. His email is

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
Related Content
  • Maryland's unfriendly business climate kills another 1,000 jobs

    Maryland's unfriendly business climate kills another 1,000 jobs

    Maryland is incredibly unfriendly to business with its heavy burden of regulations, high taxes and an out-of-control minority business enterprise extortion process that enriches a few African-Americans without hiring the inner city minorities it is designed to assist ("The Bechtel blame game,"...

  • Senator displays his own arrogance

    Senator displays his own arrogance

    State Sen. Paul Pinsky writes an appropriately-named commentary condemning corporate lobbyists and maintaining that he and his fellow Democrats will fight against this "corporate victory" in the past election ("Post-election arrogance?" Nov. 14). That's funny. I was under the apparently mistaken...

  • Hogan's fiscal realities

    Hogan's fiscal realities

    When Republican Larry Hogan was elected governor this month, his platform was narrow and clear: Roll back as many of the tax increases of the last eight years as possible. When he made that promise, he knew he faced a $405 million shortfall in this year's budget and next year's as soon as he walked...

  • Congress must create a level playing field for bricks-and-mortar businesses and online vendors

    Congress must create a level playing field for bricks-and-mortar businesses and online vendors

    During the next few weeks Congress will have the opportunity to pass e-fairness legislation, which will update our sales tax system and restore fairness to small businesses in our community.

  • A bad investment

    A bad investment

    Maryland's film industry employs a lot of good people, mostly highly skilled laborers. Because the state has been home to a string of television series over the years, of which "Veep" and "House of Cards" are only the latest, many of them have set down roots here and have contributed to the community...

  • No major tax rollbacks?

    No major tax rollbacks?

    Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller told some reporters this week what most State House observers have long suspected — we should not expect some sweeping reduction in taxes during the upcoming legislative session. He also produced a spirited defense of the tax increases approved during Gov....

  • Can Hogan get state spending under control?

    Can Hogan get state spending under control?

    A recent report failed to recognize that the major contributors to Maryland's and every other state's fiscal problems are their government employee pension plans ("Business groups look to reduce tax burden for some," Dec. 5).

  • Hogan's fiscal rhetoric meets reality

    Hogan's fiscal rhetoric meets reality

    When Gov.-elect Larry Hogan proclaimed the need for "strong medicine" to cure Maryland's fiscal state, he drew some jeers from the Democrats in Annapolis. The O'Malley administration bristled at the notion that he was bad-mouthing the incumbent governor's fiscal management. Sen. Richard Madaleno...