Md. budget cut by $300 million

The Baltimore Sun

It's hard enough to attract staff willing to work at low wages to train developmentally disabled clients, said Vicki Callahan, who runs Opportunity Builders Inc. Now she can't deliver promised pay increases because of state budget cutbacks.

Some of her employees might have to take second jobs to make ends meet. Some might quit for higher-paying jobs, often leaving the disabled clients despondent over lost relationships and without care providers who know their medical histories.

"It gets harder and harder to get people in this field," Callahan said.

About $300 million in budget cuts approved by the Board of Public Works yesterday reach into almost every state agency and affect myriad programs.

The midyear reductions needed to balance the budget mean that the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore will probably reduce the number of days it can open to the public; they mean that fewer foreign-trained nurses will get licensing help here to fill a shortage and that some disadvantaged black kids won't be helped by the Baltimore Urban League's programs.

Gov. Martin O'Malley, who proposed the cuts, has said that after previous rounds of budget-cutting, he had no choice but to reduce funding for health, public safety and education.

"Bear with us," O'Malley, a Democrat, told a crowd protesting the rollbacks in Annapolis yesterday.

Some advocates criticized cuts they contend would affect very low-income residents and the most vulnerable of Marylanders. They objected to cuts in programs such as a school breakfast initiative and organizations that help connect families to child care and other social services.

"Whatever we do now is going to have a harmful effect on someone somewhere," said Neil L. Bergsman of the liberal-leaning Maryland Budget and Tax Policy Institute, a project of Maryland nonprofits.

The board, which includes O'Malley, Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, unanimously approved the spending cuts to Maryland's $14 billion budget, an emergency move in response to weaker-than-expected tax collections. More than 20 other states are making similar moves.

The board abolished 790 vacant state positions and let go of 40 employees, more than half from the Department of Transportation, for savings of $26 million. The state's work force has 82,000 permanent positions.

O'Malley spared community and private colleges from deeper cuts first proposed by his budget secretary, but he required the University System of Maryland to take a bigger hit than anticipated.

Likewise, funding for stem-cell research was cut by $1 million, one-fourth of the recommended reduction. A proposal to eliminate the Department of Natural Resources helicopter unit that conducts search and rescue operations was rejected moments before the board meeting began. And the final plan eliminated 100 vacant correctional officer positions, instead of the 283 originally proposed.

O'Malley said that reduced payments to nursing homes and groups that work with the developmentally disabled and mentally ill still left them with some increases over last year. He said his administration has tried to preserve the state's "safety net" during a period of economic uncertainty. There were no cuts in unemployment insurance or emergency assistance programs for workers with temporary disabilities, he noted.


* Among the biggest items cut by the Board of Public Works yesterday: a $46 million contribution to pay for future employee retirement benefits and a $21 million reduction in payments to providers of services to residents on state assistance.

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