Many voices, 1 plea: Hands off the cash

The Baltimore Sun

Some Maryland delegates voiced skepticism yesterday about proposals for cutting at least $500 million in projected state spending as part of a comprehensive package to close the $1.7 billion fiscal shortfall expected next year.

And dozens of groups that oppose the proposed cuts - interests ranging from higher education to the film industry - sought to convey the effect of each suggested reduction, whether it be economic hardship, tuition increases or even a possible cure for painful diseases.

Far from $500 million

While the House of Delegates has yet to vote on any of the cuts, hearings in yesterday's House Appropriations Committee showed the uphill climb they could face in reducing next year's anticipated spending by $500 million, a benchmark set by House Speaker Michael E. Busch. Republicans have criticized Gov. Martin O'Malley for failing to significantly cut spending while proposing a range of tax increases.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Norman H. Conway stressed that the committee was examining reductions in anticipated spending increases, not cuts to the ongoing state operating budget.

Referring to the $500 million target, Conway said: "We may get to that figure. We may be a little bit over that figure, or we might be a little bit below it, but we're going to try to do this."

Two suggested spending cuts that would save an estimated $90 million drew numerous questions from legislators at yesterday's committee meeting. The first would eliminate a 2 percent cost-of-living increase for state employees, a proposal that would result in reduced salaries for thousands of workers because of mandated increases to pension contributions. The second is the elimination of about 1,000 vacant state positions.

It seems like we're robbing Peter to pay Paul here," said Del. Susan L.M. Aumann, a Baltimore County Republican, adding that the salary reduction could be a severe blow for state workers. "I can't swallow that."

Conway said he didn't see committee support for wiping out the cost-of-living adjustment for state employees in fiscal year 2009, which would save about $62 million. Another potential cut - of $3.3 million from the State Board of Elections budget - could delay plans to replace the state's Diebold voting machines with new equipment that creates a paper record, officials said.

Other delegates questioned why the legislature wouldn't tap millions of dollars set aside to fund vacant positions.

"It's a slush fund," said Del. Gail H. Bates, a Howard County Republican. When staffers with the Department of Legislative Services, which has compiled the list of possible cuts at the request of lawmakers, said they didn't have precise figures on past hiring, some delegates said they couldn't see making cuts without more information.

An array of interests

A host of groups that benefit from state funds pleaded for lawmakers not to go forward with certain potential cuts.

Officials from the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development asked to avoid cutbacks on subsidies for the film industry.

Higher education officials warned of tuition increases if certain proposed spending increases do not happen. County schools officials said they needed state funding to meet existing financial commitments. Local officials said they would have to raise taxes if the state rolls back support. Advocates for stem-cell research asked that a recent increase for research not be scaled back.

"Fully funding stem-cell research offers what patients like myself need more than any dollar amount could ever equal, and that is hope," said John Kellerman, president of the Maryland Families for Stem Cell Research, who has Parkinson's disease. "Hope that you can live a longer and healthier life, and for me personally, possibly live long enough to watch my three kids graduate college and to dance at my daughters' weddings."

Flo Jones, who provides training for foster care services for the Baltimore City Department of Social Services, said the agency "cannot do our job with less."

"Unfortunately, when caseloads skyrocket, our mission becomes nearly impossible. The frustrations of the job combined with the limited rewards drive good employees away. This is exacerbated when the private sector offers better pay and less stress," Jones said.

Today in Annapolis

The full Senate will meet in the morning to debate Gov. Martin O'Malley's tax proposals aimed at eliminating the state's projected $1.7 billion budget shortfall. It will also debate his plan to place up to 15,000 slot machines at five locations - one each in Allegany, Anne Arundel, Cecil and Worcester counties and Baltimore City.

The House of Delegates will continue to consider more budget cuts today in an Appropriations Committee hearing beginning at 1 p.m. House Speaker Michael E. Busch has said he wants to find as much as $500 million in additional cuts to help eliminate the state's projected shortfall.


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