State budget boosts outlay on education; General Assembly approves spending $19.5 billion; No broad-based tax relief; Metro extension, state worker raise among initiatives


The General Assembly gave final approval yesterday to a $19.5 billion state budget that pours record dollars into construction for schools and colleges while sending state aid to private schools for the first time.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening and legislators chose to use much of Maryland's $1 billion surplus to fuel an unprecedented building boom, earmarking more than a half-billion dollars in cash for new schools, an extension of a Washington Metro line and other projects throughout the state.

The budget includes no broad tax relief, as lawmakers abandoned plans to move up an income tax cut scheduled for 2001. Some critics complain the state is making too many spending commitments without regard for what might happen if the economy turns sour.

The ambitious spending plan closely matches the budget Glendening submitted at the outset of the 90-day session. It contains double-digit percentage increases for a number of state programs, including higher education and supervision of juvenile delinquents.

"I am pleased that the General Assembly maintained the most important principles in our budget," Glendening said. "There are record investments in higher education and public school construction, much of it paid for in cash so that it does not add to future debt."

The House passed the budget yesterday by a 122-16 vote, missing by one day an often ignored constitutional deadline of approving the budget by the 83rd day of the session. The Senate passed the bill 36-10 about midnight Monday.

The spending plan includes:

$1.4 billion in transportation projects, including $100 million for a Blue Line extension of the Washington Metro in Prince George's County.

About $325 million in cash for new schools and campus buildings, with $300 million more to come in borrowed funds in the capital budget.

A 4 percent pay raise for state employees, starting in November.

Tens of millions of dollars for projects in Baltimore, including $23 million toward renovation of the Hippodrome Theater.

The city also will be getting an extra $8 million for drug treatment, $5.4 million for its criminal justice system and $5 million for battling lead-paint hazards in old buildings. The money is far less than the O'Malley administration requested, but city officials said they were pleased with the new aid.

Advocates for the poor called the drug treatment funding woefully inadequate, and said an otherwise plentiful budget fell short for those most in need of medical care and affordable housing.

"During this time of record prosperity, not much was done [for the poor], and I think that's a very sad thing," said Kevin Lindamood, an advocate for the homeless. "We really had an opportunity to provide for some basic unmet needs, and in my mind we lost that opportunity."

Glendening used some of the money from Maryland's share of the national tobacco settlement to reward political allies, proposing $35 million for pay raises for teachers and $6 million for textbooks at private and parochial schools.

His support of the textbook subsidy fulfilled a 1998 campaign promise to Jewish and Catholic leaders, who have sought such funding for years. The historic proposal became the most heavily debated item in the budget, surviving over the objections of the public schools.

The legislature left much of Glendening's budget intact despite cuts totaling $222 million. Legislators eliminated $2 million to put teacher telephones in classrooms and $1 million for gun-safety research intended for Beretta U.S.A., the Prince George's-based gun manufacturer.

Republicans complained that the cuts barely made a dent in what they consider a fiscally irresponsible budget, which is 8.7 percent larger than last year's.

"The time will come when the economy will not be booming like it is now," said Del. Robert L. Flanagan, the House minority whip.

Republicans also criticized the lack of any major tax relief in the budget. The spending plan allows for some tax credits and a small reduction in the state inheritance tax, an issue being negotiated by legislators in the final week of the session.

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