Maryland lawmakers technically have one job under the state constitution: Pass a balanced budget. The General Assembly accomplished its sole mandated duty this week by passing a $44.5 billion spending plan without any new taxes and barely any political acrimony.
Now delegates and senators are moving on to lingering legislative issues in the final dozen days before the 2018 legislative session ends and campaign season begins.
The Democrat-controlled Senate and House of Delegates did little to alter Gov. Larry Hogan’s budget request, moving the Republican’s spending plan through the chambers with minimal contention and unusual speed.
“This only serves to further highlight just how different this process is from the absurdity that takes place in Washington D.C.,” Hogan’s spokesman Doug Mayer said Wednesday. “The governor and the administration will continue to work with our partners in the General Assembly to ensure that this positive trend is maintained and that our taxpayers’ interests are protected.”
Del. Maggie McIntosh, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said investments in the budget will improve Maryland.
“Each year we aim to put forth a budget that is balanced and meets the needs of our state,” the Baltimore Democrat said. “This budget does just that. It ensures that our commitments to our citizens are kept.”
The two houses gave their final approval to the operating budget Tuesday after a House-Senate conference committee quickly ironed out differences. And on Wednesday, both chambers easily approved a $4.6 billion capital budget.
The only significant political split in the budget process came in the House when Hogan asked the legislature to lift certain spending mandates, such as a 3.5 percent raise for caregivers for developmentally disabled people. Most Democrats said “no” to such requests.
Legislators cut $343 million out of Hogan’s proposed budget — less than 1 percent. They ended up with $200 million in reserves and an additional $879 million in the so-called “Rainy Day” fund, which serves as a hedge against unexpected cost increases.
The Assembly funded a 2 percent pay increase for state employees, starting next January. If revenues for the fiscal year ending June 30 exceed expectations by $75 million, state employees could get an additional half-point raise and a $500 bonus.
The state will spend $6.5 billion on education aid to local school systems, a 2.9 percent increase largely driven by a formula. The legislature also put aside $200 million for an expected increase next year in state aid to school systems. Public colleges and universities will receive a 4.1 percent spending boost, allowing them to hold tuition increases to 2 percent. Community colleges will be offered incentive payments to limit their tuition hikes to the same level.
Hogan and lawmakers differed over how much to spend on student safety following high-profile gun attacks at schools. The legislature set aside $41 million for that purpose, though Hogan has been pushing a $125 million initiative.
The governor issued a public call Wednesday for action on his proposal, but lawmakers have been skeptical because it would draw on casino revenues that many would like to see devoted to academic performance.
The budget still contains an unresolved issue. The Senate wants to increase the standard deduction by $500 for individual taxpayers and $1,000 for married couples. The House wants to index those deductions to inflation.
With the budget’s passage, senators and delegates face a host of politically thorny issues just before the 2018 campaign season starts.
Lawmakers are under pressure to pass a sweeping crime bill to respond to last year’s spike in violent crime in Baltimore. The Senate has passed a bill the governor supports, but the House has signaled it might take a different approach.
The House and Senate also don’t agree about how to increase the number of medical marijuana growers’ licenses to give minorities a better chance of entering the industry.
The legislature has until midnight April 9 to work out differences on remaining bills.