Honing their budget knives


As lawmakers finish their review of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s $29.6 billion spending plan and begin deciding what to trim from it, a Senate subcommittee yesterday recommended cutting the governor's proposed $20 million stem cell research funding in half.

The money can't be spent, lawmakers suggested, until the General Assembly approves legislation outlining a process for distributing the funds. The governor has said such a law is not necessary.

The subcommittee also laid the groundwork to freeze tuition for University System of Maryland and Morgan State University students, and made cuts to some of the governor's other budget priorities, including support for the horse-racing industry and need-based scholarships for college students.

The subcommittee recommendations come amid a highly charged political atmosphere of budget negotiations this year.

For much of the past week, Ehrlich has been engaged in an unusual public lobbying campaign to ward off cuts to his budget proposal. He held three news conferences last week to protest cuts legislative staffers suggested in his budgets for public safety, the environment and people with disabilities.

Democratic leaders said the governor should be negotiating with them directly, and they criticized Ehrlich for raising fears about spending reductions that were only suggestions. Lawmakers are planning to trim $100 million from the budget to meet a self-imposed limit of what state taxpayers can afford, and legislative analysts have provided a menu of choices.

Yesterday, the Budget and Taxation subcommittee on Education, Business and Administration did not address any of the proposed cuts that were the subject of the governor's news conferences.

Nonetheless, Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said the governor is disappointed by the recommendations.

"The governor is willing to go the extra mile for aspiring college students, medical research proponents and the horse-racing industry, but it looks like the Senate might not," Fawell said. "The governor calls on the full Senate to protect these worthwhile investments."

Sen. Patrick J. Hogan, the Montgomery County Democrat who chairs the subcommittee, said the recommended cut to stem cell funding in fiscal 2007 reflects logistical concerns, not a lack of commitment to the research.

"If we're able to pass a bill, we've got to put together a scientific review panel. Those people have to be appointed, and all the regulations have to be in place," Hogan said. "I don't think they can get more than $10 million out the door in '07."

Budget language recommended by the subcommittee would prevent Ehrlich from funding stem cell research at all unless the General Assembly passes a bill outlining guidelines for its use. Ehrlich has advocated funding the research without legislation as a way to avoid a tough fight over its passage in the Senate.

The Assembly is considering several bills that would give preference to embryonic stem cell research over work on adult stem cells. Research on embryos is opposed by religious conservatives. Lawmakers are considering providing state funding because of a Bush administration ban on federal funding for most embryonic research.

The subcommittee's recommendations are the first stage of a budget decision-making process that will last several weeks. Although the subcommittee's decisions are influential, they are far from final.

Recommendations from all three Senate budget subcommittees are scheduled to be heard by the full Budget and Taxation Committee this week. Its decisions are likely to go to the full Senate next week.

The House of Delegates Appropriations Committee is engaged in its own process. Differences between the House and Senate budget bills are typically resolved in a conference committee near the end of the 90-day session. The legal deadline for the Assembly to adopt a budget is April 3.

As with the cut to stem cell research funding, the proposed $10 million cut to horse-racing subsidies also targets a top Ehrlich priority. The governor has for four years proposed slot machine gambling bills that would substantially subsidize horse racing, which he says is a key part of Maryland's economy and a linchpin in the preservation of the state's agricultural heritage. In his first three years, the bills failed in the legislature, and little momentum appears to be building to support slots this year.

Sen. David R. Brinkley, a Frederick County Republican, objected to the cut, saying the money is necessary to keep the industry afloat, but he was out-voted.

The subcommittee agreed on cutting about $5.1 million from need-based scholarships for university system students. Ehrlich has made a shift from merit-based to need-based scholarships a major priority of his administration. The cut would still allow for a 21.6 percent increase in such aid over the fiscal 2006 budget. Hogan said a tuition freeze would make the increase less necessary.

Hogan is sponsoring a bill that would freeze university system tuition for the next academic year. He said the Ehrlich administration budgeted more money than necessary for university system employee and retiree health care, and the subcommittee suggested budget language authorizing the use of those funds to offset the $18 million that a tuition freeze would cost.


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