Senate trims from budget

The Baltimore Sun

The Senate gave preliminary approval yesterday to nearly $390 million in cuts from Gov. Martin O'Malley's proposed budget for next year, turning aside Republican efforts to make even deeper reductions and to limit raises for top administration officials.

Sen. David R. Brinkley, the GOP leader from Frederick and Carroll counties, urged senators to lop $100 million more from O'Malley's spending plan and to use $114 million from state reserve funds to allow for repeal of the computer services tax.

"This was a bad idea from the start," Brinkley said of the computer-services tax, part of a package of tax increases meant to ease the state's structural budget deficit. "The question now is what do we do? ... How do we get ourselves out of this quagmire?"

Bills to repeal the 6 percent computer-services sales tax and to replace it with higher income taxes on the wealthy were considered in a Senate committee yesterday.

Republicans and some Democrats said they don't want to raise additional taxes, given the public's irritation over the increases approved last fall.

"Some people are between the devil and the deep blue sea," said Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, a Republican from the Lower Eastern Shore. "Do we want to vote another tax? ... That won't sell out there."

Democratic leaders opposed the GOP move. They said the cuts could create a hole in the budget that might force the state to raise tuition again at state colleges and universities, something O'Malley and lawmakers have vowed to avoid.

Sen. Rob Garagiola, a Montgomery County Democrat, called Brinkley's proposal a "credit card solution" to filling the revenue gap of more than $200 million that could be created by repealing the computer-services tax. He pointed out that officials would have to cut the budget more in future years to cover the revenue shortfall.

"I think we need a plan that gets us out of this permanently," said Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, the majority leader, who represents Howard and Baltimore counties.

Brinkley's amendment failed on a vote of 26-19, with a handful of Democrats supporting it. Among them was Baltimore County Sen. James Brochin, who warned that the computer tax would cost the state jobs and revenues by driving away a clean, high-tech industry.

Other Republican amendments, targeting, among other things, funding for abortion, highway beautification and salaries for the governor's staff, also failed, largely on party-line votes.

Seizing on a recent report in The Washington Times about pay increases in the budget for O'Malley's top aides, Republican senators decried the new salaries as excessive compared with the modest raise proposed for all state workers.

A report from the nonpartisan Department of Legislative Services shows that O'Malley raised the salaries of 53 top positions at a cost of $680,000.

The salary increases - as much as 46 percent for one position when compared with the previous year - were spread across about two dozen agencies.

"You're seeing these incredible increases in salaries while at the same time we're asking those who work in state government to accept 2 percent," said Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, the minority whip from Howard County. He said the pay disparity was demoralizing to state workers and irritating to the public.

"They're frustrated that we are giving high-high salaries and increases to people when they are asked to keep on making do with less," Kittleman said.

He proposed limiting top aides' pay increases to 6 percent over the next year, with any larger raises requiring the approval of the Board of Public Works.

Increases listed in the report weren't pay raises for individuals but reflected higher salaries O'Malley chose to pay as part of the transition from Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration, according to Warren G. Deschenaux Jr., chief budget analyst with the Legislative Services Department.

Democrats were quick to point out that O'Malley also reduced the salaries of 33 positions in the government's executive pay plan, which includes the top positions, for a savings of more than $200,000. That means that the overall increase in the pay plan, which covers about 180 jobs, is only slightly higher than the standard 2 percent for all state employees, they said.

Democrats contended that higher salaries are needed to attract qualified candidates.

Stoltzfus argued that some salaries are excessive.

"The governor of this state only makes $150,000," he said. "If you're in public service, you take a pay cut. ... We can't compete with the private sector."

Amendments offered by Stoltzfus and Kittleman failed by wide margins.

So did amendments offered by other Republican senators to eliminate any state funds to organizations that support abortion, to pay for highway beautification and to help complete a nearly $9 million renovation of a building for the immigrant-rights group CASA of Maryland.

Sun reporter Laura Smitherman contributed to this article.

Court throws out GOP lawsuit

The Court of Appeals threw out yesterday a Republican lawsuit attempting to overturn the tax increases and slot machine gambling referendum approved in November's special General Assembly session.

A day after hearing arguments in the case, the state's highest court upheld a January decision by a Carroll County Circuit Court judge. The court did not release a full opinion on the matter, but judges said in a statement that they will do so later.

Republican lawmakers alleged in their suit that procedural irregularities during the special session amounted to violations of the state constitution and warranted overturning all laws the General Assembly passed during that time. The state contended that lawmakers followed proper procedures but that even if they didn't, the errors did not merit overturning the majority decisions of the General Assembly.

The Carroll County ruling criticized the Democratic leaders of the General Assembly for procedural sloppiness but agreed with the state that throwing out the laws was not an appropriate remedy for any errors.

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