House OKs budget

The Baltimore Sun

Battle lines have been drawn over competing state spending proposals after the House of Delegates decided overwhelmingly Thursday night to approve a $13.9 billion operating budget with key differences from the Senate plan.

The House voted 116-21 for a budget that preserves education and health care funding with federal stimulus money while cutting local aid and other programs. Democratic leaders contend that they pared the budget while maintaining a social safety net and averting worker layoffs and higher taxes.

"This is a budget that is in fact very prudent," said Del. John L. Bohanan, a Southern Maryland Democrat. "Everybody in this country needs to be tightening their belt."

Meanwhile, the Senate is working on its own spending priorities as tax revenues plunged $2.5 billion in the past year with the declining economy. The two chambers must work out their differences through a selected committee of negotiators.

Sticking points include the amount of money for stem-cell research and higher education, and whether to begin replacing the state's aging medevac helicopter fleet.

Lawmakers also are discussing the possibility of freezing formulas that mandate annual spending increases for various programs, including community colleges, public schools and state aid to private universities. Such a move would give them more control over the budget. Sen. Ulysses Currie, chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, said the mandate freeze is still in the "discussion phase" but could become necessary as potential budget shortfalls loom in future years.

The House cut roughly $825 million from Gov. Martin O'Malley's proposed budget, including more than $500 million from the general fund that supports most operations. That chamber kept $18.4 million in stem-cell funding, while the Senate trimmed that to $5 million. The House also cut more deeply into the budget for the University System of Maryland.

Aid to local governments was slashed by almost $300 million, including $60 million in local "piggyback" income tax revenue that the House has proposed diverting to state coffers. Currie said the Senate was still reviewing the idea. Under the House proposal, Baltimore County would lose $8.9 million, one of the highest of any jurisdiction.

"We are quite frankly paying more than our fair share," said Eric. M. Bromwell, a Baltimore County Democrat.

Republicans argued the Democratic-controlled chamber didn't cut deeply enough and that billions of dollars from a federal stimulus package masks long-term deficits.

Another potential big-ticket conflict could arise over the state's medevac fleet. Expanding on O'Malley's proposal, the House has proposed spending about $55 million to buy three new helicopters next year.

But in a 9-2 vote late Wednesday, the Senate Finance Committee endorsed delaying the procurement until 2011 and conducting a formal study of the matter. Sponsored by Sen. Robert J. Garagiola, a Montgomery County Democrat, the measure is a potential setback for the state police department, which wants to start overhauling its 12-helicopter fleet as soon as possible.

"If they wanted to conduct their study, they should have done that years ago, when this whole helicopter replacement program" was first proposed, said Maj. A.J. McAndrew, commander of the State Police Aviation Command. Further delay would jeopardize the readiness of the fleet, McAndrew said.

Proponents of reforming or privatizing Maryland's embattled medevac system have been pushing the Garagiola bill as their best hope this session to delay a fleet overhaul that would effectively cement state police control over medevac functions for the foreseeable future.

Though the Garagiola bill is unlikely to pass the House, it could persuade the Senate's appropriations committee to cut helicopter money from its version of the budget. Maryland's vaunted EMS system has been under scrutiny since a fatal crash in September and a critical legislative audit last year.

Byson F. Popham, a lobbyist for Air Methods Corp, which wants to take over the system, said "impromevements can be made after an appropriate study."

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