City, counties, advocates pore through budget for impact of cuts

As Gov. Larry Hogan released details of his austerity budget, advocacy groups and local governments pored through the numbers to discover the impact on the people they serve.

In some cases, it was worse than they expected.


Baltimore's school system, county and municipal governments, and conservation advocates were among those disappointed Friday by the $39 billion spending plan for the 12 months starting July 1.

The city's schools would absorb the largest cuts in education aid of any jurisdiction in the state — by percentage and total dollars.


Representatives of local governments were dismayed to find that the new Republican governor had not kept his campaign promise to restore highway dollars slashed by as much as 96 percent by Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley during the recession.

Environmentalists complained that Hogan had broken another promise by dipping into a dedicated fund for preserving open space.

Erin Montgomery, a spokeswoman for Hogan, defended the cuts.

"Governor Hogan was elected to restore fiscal responsibility to our state, and that is exactly what his budget does," she said. "Getting to a structurally balanced budget today will ensure that funding for priorities like education, the environment and transportation, including highway user revenues, aren't jeopardized in the future."

The General Assembly will spend the next 21/2 months in a review of the budget plan. While legislators cannot shift money or add to spending in the operating budget, they can try to negotiate changes.

In many cases, budget watchdogs were reserving judgment about Hogan's proposal Friday. They planned to spend the weekend studying the three thick volumes that lay out the operating budget and a thinner one listing construction projects that have been funded.

"There will be a better understanding of the ins and outs of the budget Monday afternoon," said Alexandra Hughes, spokeswoman for House Speaker Michael E. Busch. "It just takes time to understand such a significant and complicated document."

In a news conference Thursday, Hogan said his budget would restore fiscal discipline in Maryland and eliminate a persistent revenue shortfall not only for next year, but in the future. The budget shows that he did so by slowing the growth of state spending by roughly $350 million more than expected.


Some cuts were clear almost immediately, such as the pay cut for state workers, who in July would lose the 2 percent raise they received in January.

Other actions became clearer with the release of the full budget Friday.

Gregory Thornton, CEO of the Baltimore school system, learned that the district would lose nearly $36 million in aid, a 3.9 percent cut.

"Our entire team at city schools is reviewing the governor's budget and carefully evaluating how the proposed cuts will impact our students, staff, schools, teachers and partners. We are disappointed that despite having the highest concentration of poverty in the state, Baltimore city schools suffered the deepest cuts of any [school system]," he said in a statement.

Hogan administration officials, speaking on condition that they not be identified, said the reason Baltimore's cut was so deep is that the city is not as poor as it used to be. Baltimore's wealth relative to the rest of the state has increased because of the construction of luxury homes along the Inner Harbor, they said.

Warren Deschenaux, the General Assembly's top budget analyst, said wealth — as measured by income and property tax assessments — is one of the factors that go into the formula that determines how much education aid a local jurisdiction will get. He said Baltimore has not gained much in income but has seen a significant increase in property value.


Del. Curt Anderson, the Baltimore Democrat who chairs the city's House delegation, said Baltimore lawmakers would question that determination.

"It doesn't really reflect anything I've seen. Baltimore is not a wealthy city," Anderson said.

The city wasn't the only metropolitan jurisdiction to take a hit. Aid to Carroll County schools would be reduced by 3.3 percent, the third-largest reduction in the state.

"That is a fairly big chunk for us," said Chris Hartlove, the school system's chief financial officer.

Education advocates were dismayed by Hogan's decisions.

"These huge budget cuts to our schools hit the metro counties disproportionately. Baltimore could lose hundreds of teachers. The budget pain should not fall on the backs of schoolchildren," said Bebe Verdery, education director for the ACLU of Maryland.


Hogan's transportation budget brought disappointing news for local government officials.

While campaigning last year, Hogan had promised the Maryland Association of Counties and the Maryland Municipal League that he would restore hundreds of millions of dollars in "highway user revenues" that O'Malley diverted from transportation to plug holes in his recession-era budgets.

However, Hogan's budget shows that most counties would see decreases from last year's funding levels for local highway projects — as much as 44 percent in Allegany County — unless new money shows up in March. The state's formula-driven highway aid fund was essentially held level, but $16 million in additional grants the General Assembly approved last year were gone.

"We were definitely disappointed. We were hoping and anticipating to see some additional highway money in there for local government," said Andrea Mansfield, legislative director for the counties.

Mansfield said the loss of the grants means that counties will struggle to maintain vital infrastructure, but she said county officials would understand Hogan's decision.

"They are grown-ups and they understand budget realities," she said.


James Peck, research director for the municipal league, said city and town officials realize that Hogan had to account for declining revenue estimates since making his promise.

"We believe the administration's intentions are honorable and that to the extent that it can be done, some relief will be provided in terms of municipal highway needs," he said.

Administration officials said restoration of the highway money remains a priority for Hogan, and they hope an improved March revenue estimate provides money the governor can use for that.

More aggrieved were environmentalists over Hogan's use of Program Open Space funds to plug the budget gap. O'Malley and other governors have diverted such special-purpose funds routinely in tough budget years, but Hogan had vowed to discontinue such transfers, which he labeled "gimmicks."

Ann Jones, director of Partners for Open Space, said the state's farms, forests and parks were being "shortchanged" by Hogan's decision to use $40 million in program funds to make up for lost revenue.

"We recognize the need to balance the budget," Jones said. But the land preservation programs have a specific funding source — the real estate transfer tax — and thus are not supposed to compete with other state services for funding, she said.


Even some of the apparent winners in the budget were not ready to declare victory until they examine the numbers.

The administration touted an 8 percent increase for the Developmental Disabilities Administration budget, to just over $1 billion.

But Brian Cox, executive director of the Maryland Developmental Disabilities Council, said Friday that it was too soon to say what that means.

"We don't know what these numbers mean for people with developmental disabilities and their families until we get more details," he said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Timothy B. Wheeler contributed to this article.