Amid budget struggle, O'Malley ups 'core' spending request

The Baltimore Sun

As lawmakers worked yesterday to trim state spending to balance Maryland's budget for next year, Gov. Martin O'Malley proposed $18.2 million in new expenditures, much of it earmarked for health care, programs for children with disabilities and a fund to help the poor pay their electricity bills.

O'Malley called for additional general fund spending totaling $28.7 million over the next two years but also proposed significant expenditures relying on special earmarked funds, some of which are nearing approval by the General Assembly.

O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese defended the governor's submission of a supplemental budget request - an annual tradition - at a time when lawmakers are struggling to balance the state budget and repeal an unpopular computer services tax.

"This is a very lean supplemental budget that goes directly to making government more effective and more efficient," Abbruzzese said. He said the governor focused his spending requests on "core services" such as juvenile services, state police and aid for infants and toddlers with learning disabilities.

Among O'Malley's larger spending requests are:

$2.3 million for the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to cover a deficit in payments for treatment of breast and cervical cancer.

$7.7 million more to help low-income families pay rising utility bills, with nearly half of that to come from the general fund budget and the rest from special funds.

$7.6 million for enrollment of 700 additional disabled children in the Maryland State Department of Education's Infants and Toddlers Program. The increase is needed to meet the state's burden in a program largely underwritten with federal funds, according to Abbruzzese.

$5.4 million to the Department of Juvenile Services to help cover the cost of housing and treating troubled youths and to cover salary shortfalls among the staff.

$3.3 million to cover increased costs of fuel, utilities and vehicle maintenance for the State Police.

Besides the general-fund budget requests, O'Malley proposed spending $55.1 million more over the next two years using special funds.

O'Malley's additional spending requests reduce by about $8 million the $181 million in unspent funds that lawmakers had reserved to cover unanticipated drops in revenue or increases in costs, Abbruzzese said.

Earlier in the day, lawmakers tentatively agreed to compromises on spending reductions to health care expansion, Chesapeake Bay cleanup, stem cell research and higher education as they neared the April 7 deadline to approve the $31 billion budget.

But still unresolved is the question of how to keep the budget in balance while repealing Maryland's new tax on computer services - a growing priority for O'Malley and a majority of the General Assembly.

Leaders in the House of Delegates and state Senate remained divided over how to make up for the $200 million in revenues that would be lost with the repeal, but they also expressed optimism that a deal could be struck in the last remaining week of the session.

By law, legislators must pass a balanced budget before they adjourn next month. The plan they adopt will cover the fiscal year that begins July 1.

"We're fairly close on what we're going to do," said Sen. Ulysses Currie, a Prince George's County Democrat who chairs the Senate Budget and Taxation

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