Launching a review of the governor's budget proposal with eyes that may be jaundiced by recent battles, Democrats in the General Assembly say they see signs of retaliation in the $25.9 billion spending plan released this week.
Lawmakers are wondering aloud whether Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is trying to punish them for votes cast during last week's special session by eliminating programs that they favor, withholding money from jurisdictions where leaders live and abolishing patronage long enjoyed by legislators.
"I've never dealt with a group of people where such retribution comes down the line," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch, who is fighting the elimination of a popular prescription drug program for senior citizens that he helped create and considers one of his top accomplishments.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said Calvert County - where he lives - would receive the lowest percentage increase in state assistance of any county in Maryland under the governor's spending plan. Calvert stands to get a 3 percent increase, compared with an average of 10.1 percent for all counties and Baltimore.
Anne Arundel County, home to Busch and three Democratic senators who were the targets of a recent GOP advertising campaign, would receive the second-lowest increase, 5.3 percent. The two counties would lose funds through a proposed elimination of a grant program compensating them for electric utility plants that do not pay property taxes.
"It's very unusual for the home jurisdictions of the two presiding officers to get hit this hard," said Del. Kumar P. Barve, the House majority leader from Montgomery County. "I can't believe it was coincidental. If the governor doesn't like Mike Busch, that's one thing. But there are thousands of people who live in Anne Arundel County who should not be collateral damage."
Busch, Miller role
Busch and Miller led an effort last week to override Ehrlich's veto of a medical malpractice plan. Ehrlich fought the override effort vigorously and has expressed anger toward those who voted against him. The governor and his allies have accused Miller of reneging on a deal for greater tort reform.
Maryland governors have long used their budgetary authority - considered by experts to be the strongest in the nation - to reward friends and punish enemies. Ehrlich's predecessor, Gov. Parris N. Glendening, was considered a master at using the tool to maximum advantage.
"I'm certain that some members are feeling the power of the executive, as many of us [Republicans] did under Glendening," said Sen. David R. Brinkley of Frederick County. "The sword cuts both ways."
It is not clear whether the proposals are intended to inflict real harm or are more a negotiating tool that could soon disappear through compromises. Ehrlich can ill afford to alienate the Assembly, where Democrats hold veto-proof majorities in both chambers, if he hopes to secure passage of his slot-machine plan or other priorities.
Others say Democrats are being too sensitive, and deny that Ehrlich is trying to punish the opposing party. "They are looking at the bogeyman that doesn't exist. Or to put another way, maybe they are running a little scared and overreacting," said Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the House minority whip, whose Southern Maryland district includes parts of Calvert County.
One proposal that has irked lawmakers is the governor's suggestion that $11 million be removed from a program that allows legislators to award student scholarships in their districts and be given instead to a need-based scholarship fund.
The legislative program has been the target of repeated criticism over the years, but some lawmakers say any changes should be their decision, not the governor's. Miller has been a notable defender.
"If we decide to do that, that is one thing, but to have the administration do it is another," said Del. Talmadge Branch, a Baltimore Democrat and vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
Warren G. Deschenaux, the Assembly's top budget analyst, said yesterday that "there's some indication that the legislative scholarships were a late addition to the governor's plan." Earlier versions of budget documents showed $15 million for need-based scholarships, Deschenaux said, while the final plan had $27 million - and proposed the elimination of the legislative patronage.
O'Donnell said shifting the scholarship money was a "legitimate policy decision," as was the elimination of the utility company grant. He and others noted that the governor had proposed ending the grant last year.
Miller said that Ehrlich might not have thought through the ramifications of the decision.
"Adversely affecting myself impacts a small county with four Republican county commissioners who are now going to have to raise taxes in order to balance their budget," Miller said.
Lawmakers say they don't want Ehrlich to eliminate a $20 million prescription-drug program through which CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield has agreed to provide low-cost prescriptions for senior citizens in exchange for preferential tax treatment. Busch, who has blocked the governor's slots plan, helped create the program.
"God bless them if they want to infuriate seniors to get to me," Busch said.
O'Donnell said the state program was always intended to be a temporary fix until a federal solution kicked in, but Busch said he thinks it should remain because the new federal Medicaid drug plan is insufficient.
Programs and jobs
The governor's budget proposes program cuts and eliminating jobs, while creating jobs in other areas, but officials have not disclosed which programs would lose workers.
Yesterday, a day after the release of the spending plan, the Ehrlich administration began distributing job-termination notices to nearly 140 employees, who were told that their positions would be eliminated July 1, the start of the fiscal year.
Andrea Fulton, state personnel director, said the displaced workers will get help looking for other state jobs but that none is guaranteed a position.
"The thinking was, this gives them five months to find another position," Fulton said. "The employees I've talked to have thanked us for giving them this much notice."
Union officials criticized the decision. "As far as we're concerned, there's absolutely no excuse to terminate these individuals," said Sue Esty, a lobbyist with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.