State budget approved

The Baltimore Sun

The General Assembly passed Maryland's $31.2 billion budget yesterday, capping a hectic day of debates and votes as lawmakers sought to put the finishing touches on a crush of legislation before they adjourn tomorrow.

Although much of the day was taken up with debate over the repeal of the computer services tax, both legislative chambers sent bills to Gov. Martin O'Malley for his signature, including high-profile measures that would protect rural shoreline from further development and strengthen penalties against manufacturers of toys and other products containing lead.

Still, despite passing dozens of bills - including such small-ticket items as the creation of a task force to study the statewide infestation of gypsy moths - they also left until the final day of the session a vote on a major utility settlement negotiated by the O'Malley administration, legislation allowing for collection of DNA upon some arrests and a bill authorizing localities to install speed cameras.

Although much was left undone, many lawmakers said they were relieved that the state's spending plan was completed. As required by the Maryland Constitution, the budget is balanced for the fiscal year beginning July 1. Unlike other bills, the budget does not require the governor's signature.

The Senate approved the budget on a 38-7 vote. Sen. Ulysses Currie, chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, noted that the spending plan freezes state university tuition, includes money for an expansion of Medicaid to cover more uninsured residents and provides funding for a new Chesapeake Bay cleanup fund, though not as much as O'Malley had planned.

"The economy and our revenue picture will have to be monitored carefully, and our spending will have to be carefully managed to keep it in line," Currie said. "Despite these challenges, we were able to fund many important priorities."

The two chambers negotiated $274.5 million in spending reductions, on top of $257.5 million O'Malley cut before submitting his budget plan for a total of $532 million in reduced expenditures, according to the Department of Legislative Services. Legislators left $235.4 million in the state's general fund to guard against shortfalls brought about by continued economic hardship.

The budget was hotly debated both during the discussion of the computer tax repeal and when it was passed. Many Republicans and some Democrats said legislators had not cut enough, although lawmakers who sit on budget committees said spending grew less than the rate of inflation once the cuts were factored in.

The House also passed a bill that calls for greater coordination between state and local governments on enforcement of the 24-year-old Critical Area law, which limits development near the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. The measure is designed to limit property owners' variances from waterfront building curbs and provides for building contractors to lose their licenses for knowing violations of the law. It also requires tighter scrutiny of any growth proposed along pristine shoreline.

Delegates ratified with little debate a Senate amendment that slightly weakened the law, shrinking the proposed 300-foot setback for construction on rural shoreline to 200 feet, a move that environmentalists worried might not provide enough protection to the bay from polluted runoff.

"This overhaul is long overdue," said Margaret McHale, chairwoman of the Critical Area Commission that oversees the waterfront development law. She helped shepherd the bill through the Assembly and received a round of applause yesterday from the House Environmental Matters Committee for her work.

McHale said that while she was disappointed in the last-minute change, she still saw the bill as progress. The current law requires only a 100-foot setback. "It's a question of degree; this is still twice as good as what we have now," she said.

"This was a bill that had a hard uphill climb, and there was even a time when I didn't think we'd get it done," said Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat and chairwoman of the Environmental Matters Committee. "Both the administration and environmentalists are pleased with the outcome."

The Senate yesterday voted 45-2 for legislation to prohibit the sale in Maryland of jewelry, toys or other children's products that contain toxic lead, taking the same position as the House. The bill had been watered down by the Senate Finance Committee after toy industry lobbyists complained that the bill was too restrictive, but those changes were rejected by the full chamber.

"Any exposure to lead is detrimental," said Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat.

Also yesterday, Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a Baltimore Democrat, decided not to pursue legislation aimed at dismantling Towson University's new master's degree in business administration. The bill failed last year, too, despite support from several Legislative Black Caucus members who say that the MBA program is unconstitutional because it unnecessarily duplicates an established one at nearby Morgan State University, a historically black institution.

"No one wants to fix this right now," Conway said.

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