GOP budget proposal defeated

The Baltimore Sun

The state Senate rejected a Republican plan yesterday to close a projected budget shortfall next year by slashing spending, foreclosing the possibility that the General Assembly will tackle the looming budget deficit this year.

The unsuccessful bid to cut Gov. Martin O'Malley's budget proposal came a week after a similar effort in the House of Delegates. The Senate and House of Delegates are left to reconcile the differences between the two versions of O'Malley's budget proposal, which they have passed.

The Senate Republicans' plan would have taken most spending growth out of O'Malley's proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Republicans said that move, if coupled with the legalization of slot machines in Maryland, would enable the state to close the expected gap between revenue and spending - projected at $1.5 billion next year - without raising taxes.

"I believe it is essential to take action now to restrain spending growth and come up with a budget solution," said Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, the Eastern Shore Republican who sponsored the amendment. "Waiting until next year almost certainly means higher taxes for Maryland citizens."

The measure was defeated on a party-line vote, with all 14 Senate Republicans supporting it and all 33 Democrats opposing it. Democrats said the cuts the Republicans proposed would deeply hurt state residents and that the legislature should give O'Malley time to craft a solution to the state's budget woes.

"It [the GOP proposal] looks nice, it does, but the devil is in the details," said Sen. P.J. Hogan, a Montgomery County Democrat and vice chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee. "It doesn't tell you all the things we would have to do. It doesn't tell you the number of people who would lose health care. ... It doesn't tell you how much tuition would have to increase. It doesn't tell you how much local governments would have to raise taxes to make up for the gaps this amendment provides."

The Republican delegates' plan was less detailed than the one considered in the Senate and would have slashed spending across the board, including money for the state's landmark education funding program, the Thornton plan.

The House plan also cut deeply enough to balance the budget even if slots are not approved. Several Republican delegates joined all Democrats in the House to reject that plan.

Despite the failure of the GOP proposal in the Senate, several Republicans - including Stoltzfus - voted yesterday to approve the budget as a whole. The final tally was 41-6.

The Democrat-controlled Senate cut more deeply from the governor's plan than the House did, trimming about $180 million out of O'Malley's $30 billion budget. The House cut $149 million.

The largest single difference is over O'Malley's plan to delay for a year a payment for the planned Intercounty Connector, a long-awaited road linking Interstates 270 and 95 through Montgomery County. O'Malley has said the move would not change the completion date for the road. The Senate accepted his plan, but the House did not.

The Senate also voted to cut $10 million from O'Malley's proposal for stem cell research, reducing funding to the current level. The House left in the $25 million he requested for next year.

The House made deeper cuts than the Senate did to Medicaid, the Heritage Tax Credit program and the University System of Maryland.

Committees of lawmakers from the House and Senate will meet in the coming weeks to reconcile their differences. By law, the two chambers must pass a balanced budget by April 2. If they do not, the governor can extend the 90-day General Assembly session until they agree.

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