General Assembly leaders have advised Gov. Martin O'Malley to freeze state spending next year, sending a strong message that the legislature would not approve any new big-ticket programs.

The Spending Affordability Committee, a panel of lawmakers from the House and Senate, recommended zero growth in spending that the legislature controls, excluding federal funds. It was the first time the committee, created in 1982 as a check on the budget, suggested no increase.

"Our job is to try to hold the line on spending," House Speaker Michael E. Busch, a Democrat, told reporters in Annapolis on Friday.

While the committee's recommendations are not binding, operating budgets have largely adhered to the boundaries they set. O'Malley, a Democrat, won't present his budget to the legislature for approval until next month, though administration officials already have said the spending plan would follow the panel's guidance.

O'Malley and lawmakers also are limited by economic realities. As the recession eroded the state's tax base, a $2 billion budget shortfall in the $13 billion state operating fund has emerged for the fiscal year that begins next July.

Republicans rebuked O'Malley and Democratic leaders, accusing them of fiscal mismanagement. Some contend the state shouldn't accept federal stimulus funding, while others predict Democrats will temporarily reduce spending next year and then propose tax increases after the November 2010 election to fix a structural deficit.

A GOP proposal before the spending committee sought a 7 percent decrease in year-over-year spending. It failed on a party-line vote.

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