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House, Senate may be closing pension shift gap

In a sign the House may be moving closer to the Senate position on shifting part of the state's teacher pension costs to the counties, the delegate who chairs the House Appropriations Committee said Wednesday that the lower chamber is considering such a move.

Del. Norman Conway, a Wicomicom County Democrat, said Gov.Martin O'Malley's proposed pension shift is "still in play" despite vocal opposition from many county leaders.

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"We've recognized that at some point we're going to have to Become partners with the counties on retirement issues," the chairman said.

Conway is one of the most influential members of House Speaker Michael E. Busch's leadership team. The Senate has previously passed a similar measure but the idea has yet to pass muster in the House. But this year the governor has projected such a shift would trim $240 million from the state budget. If the General Assembly doesn't accept the change, lawmakers will have to find another way to reach its goal of closing a roughly $1 billion shortfall.

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The appropriations chief said House leaders are sensitive to the need to protect counties from any sudden shift of the burden, which O'Malley wants to offset in part with unpopular income tax changes that would benefit the counties.  Those changes involve phase-outs of deductions and exemptions for the top 20 percent of Maryland taxpayers.

Like Senate President Thomas V. Miller the day before, Conway said House fiscal leaders are preparing a "doomsday budget" that would balance the budget entirely with cuts. O'Malley has proposed what he calls a "balanced approach" in which cuts outweigh revenue-raisers by about 2-1.

Conway acknowledged that any further cuts could affect such items as education and health care -- the two areas where the bulk of Maryland's non-transportation spending goes.

"All these things are out there and all of them can be cut," he said.

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But Conway also noted that his committee routinely prepares such all-cuts budgets as a way of presenting delegates with the choices they need to make if they don't want to add new taxes.

"It does get attention," he said.

Conway also said House leaders are exploring alternate approaches to raising taxes. One that he acknowledged he's taking a look at is an extension of the sales tax to services -- an oft-proposed measure that tends to become a full-employment program for Annapolis lobbyists.

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