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Ehrlich, Assembly budget tensions unusually public


Partisan tensions have spoiled the usual Annapolis summer lull the past two weeks, as Democratic leaders have decried Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s unwillingness to fund programs the legislature tried to mandate in the budget.

Most of the services are the kind politicians like to brag about: meals for seniors, grants for failing schools, cancer research, health care for severely ill and disabled children, and prenatal care for low-income, legal immigrants.

All were due for cuts in Ehrlich's original budget proposal. The General Assembly, hamstrung by the Maryland Constitution, employed legislative sleight of hand to pressure the governor to restore them.

But with just days to go before the end of the fiscal year, aides say the governor will refuse many of the legislature's requests.

Longtime observers say tension between the Assembly and a governor over spending isn't new. But as Democrats accuse Ehrlich of putting a power struggle ahead of the needs of the sick and the poor, the dispute has become unusually public.

"Whether it be young people, whether it be seniors, whether it be our most vulnerable citizens, if something comes to light during the legislative process that can be and needs to be corrected, then we ought to be able to do it," said Del. Norman H. Conway, the Eastern Shore Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations Committee.

But for Ehrlich, the budget debate is about principle, not programs.

"The legislature is increasingly trying to minimize the authority of the governor because they don't like the fact that the citizens of Maryland elected a Republican," said Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the House minority whip from Southern Maryland and a member of the Appropriations Committee.

Maryland's Constitution gives the governor what many experts consider the strongest executive budget powers in the nation. The Assembly can cut from his proposal but cannot add to appropriations or transfer money from one program to another.

At issue is a tactic the legislature has used to get around that restriction. For years, the Assembly has cut funds from an agency's budget and stipulated that the money may only be spent on a certain program, such as meals for seniors or cancer research.

Frederick W. Puddester, who was Gov. Parris N. Glendening's budget chief, said the practice was common during the Democratic administration.

"We tended to work it out" in negotiations during the legislative session, Puddester said. "Typically, those items where there was agreement ended up [being funded] in a supplemental budget."

Conflicts were avoided because the Glendening administration was in constant contact with legislative leaders about spending priorities before the budget was released, Puddester said.

That sort of cooperation, both sides say, is now lacking.

In September, then-budget secretary James C. "Chip" DiPaula Jr. told state agency heads and financial officers not to share budget information with the Department of Legislative Services. Critics said it was an unprecedented move designed to avoid political fallout as program cuts were under consideration.

Ehrlich administration officials countered that they were in the midst of a comprehensive review of state spending to concentrate resources on top priorities and to eliminate programs that provide little return on the state's investment.

Budget secretary Cecilia Januszkiewicz, who started in the Department of Budget and Management in 1988 under Gov. William Donald Schaefer, said legislators have always tried to move money around in the budget to fund their priorities.

Schaefer was so mad about it that he threatened to sue, she said. But relatively little money was involved, so agencies typically went along with the requests. That changed this year, she said.

"The General Assembly has some frustrations with their limited abilities over the budget," Januszkiewicz said.

She said the governor probably will agree to some of the Assembly requests but needs to draw a line in the sand to prevent incursions that would dilute gubernatorial responsibility - and accountability - for state spending.

"If you agree to all of them, you invite more next year," Januszkiewicz said.

But Conway, the Appropriations Committee chairman, said the legislature needs the ability to make changes because it has more information than the governor had when he prepared his budget months earlier - information collected from testimony and updated financial projections.

When legislators examined Ehrlich's proposal this year, they found cuts that Democrats say would endanger the health and welfare of many citizens.

Ehrlich cut $1.4 million from the Department of Aging, which would take 63 people out of senior housing and eliminate meals for 800 low-income seniors; $7 million to provide health care for low-income children and pregnant women who are legal immigrants; $3.5 million in grants to improve test scores and behavior in struggling schools; $7.7 million for cancer research at academic medical centers; and $700,000 for the offices that enforce prevailing wage, minimum wage and child labor laws.

Lawmakers tried to restore all or parts of those programs.

If the Ehrlich administration won't accept the legislature's ability to make changes based on shifting needs, the Assembly should consider a constitutional amendment to give it the authority to transfer money within the budget, Conway said.

A similar effort failed two years ago after Ehrlich, convinced that the move was a partisan power play, persuaded all Republican senators to oppose the measure.

Januszkiewicz said the governor again would oppose such a change.

Support for the idea doesn't fall neatly along party lines. Del. George C. Edwards, the House Republican leader and a member of the Appropriations Committee, said the proposal has merit, but some Senate Democrats voted against it last year.

Budget dynamics next year could reduce the pressure for change. Because of improving tax receipts and cuts the Ehrlich administration has made, the state is expected to have a sizable surplus at the end of the next budget year that would reduce the need for cuts in the last legislative session before the 2006 election.

But Edwards said a lack of tension isn't necessarily a good thing: Public disagreements between the executive and legislative leaders have led to an open airing of budget issues, which did not happen when Democrats controlled both branches.

"It was a monopoly before," he said. "They'd go work things out in some back room and come out and say, 'We're all in agreement.' They can't do that now."

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