Maryland senators voted unanimously Thursday to approve a $47.9 billion state budget that includes $10 million to fight the spread of coronavirus and restores funding to health, education and cultural programs cut in Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s spending plan.
The Democratic-controlled Senate voted 47-0 to approve the budget with bipartisan support. Sen. Guy Guzzone, a Howard County Democrat who is chairman of the Senate’s Budget and Taxation Committee, said the amended budget continues to ramp up funding for a sweeping overhaul of public schools proposed by the state’s Kirwan Commission.
“It’s a very responsible budget,” Guzzone said. “We’re planning for the future. We’re planning for what we’re going to do with Kirwan. We’re planning for the troubles we see nationally and internationally with coronavirus. We’re trying to be as responsible as we can in putting money aside.”
The budget contains $10 million proposed by Hogan to help with the state’s response to the spread of coronavirus in Maryland, where 12 cases have been confirmed. That’s money on top of the up to $50 million the legislature already authorized the governor to draw from the so-called rainy day fund.
“He’s got $60 million to deal with issues the state may confront,” Guzzone said of Hogan.
The Senate made a number of changes to Hogan’s budget, including restoring some spending reductions proposed by the governor. Senators restored $39.5 million for developmental disabilities, behavioral health and Medicaid providers; $18.2 million for community colleges; $11.1 million for independent colleges; $1.6 million for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra; and $200,000 for Maryland Public Television.
Guzzone said the funding for the orchestra would help the BSO get back on its feet after financial struggles.
“We made the commitment to the BSO,” Guzzone said. “The idea is the BSO can succeed and over time have much less reliance on the state.”
The budget also includes a 2% raise for state workers and a 5% raise for state law enforcement officers.
The Senate’s spending plan is slightly smaller than the one proposed by Hogan. Senators freed up money by making dozens of small cuts through the budget, including a $7.1 million reduction to business tax credits and eliminating long-vacant positions throughout state government, such as a $10.5 million cut in the transportation department and a $2.5 million cut in the prison system.
Hogan proposed a budget in January that included $355 million to pay for additional public school programs that have been recommended by the state’s Kirwan Commission ― an amount increased to $362 million under the Senate spending plan.
Lawmakers in the House of Delegates have already passed the Kirwan Commission’s legislation to overhaul the state’s public schools ― at an eventual cost of $3.8 billion annually ― through expanded prekindergarten, improved career and college prep programs, additional community schools, more support for high-poverty schools and increased teacher salaries. The bill now awaits approval in the state Senate.
Both chambers are now considering different versions of tax packages that could raise about $700 million annually to help pay for the education overhaul. That’s not enough to fully fund all 10 years of the commission’s plans, but would pay for more than half.
Among the revenue-raising proposals under consideration: New taxes on digital advertising and digital downloads of things like music, books and movies; and increasing the tobacco tax. Guzzone said the Senate was not taking up a House proposal to expand the sales tax to certain so-called luxury services, such as fur cleaning, marina services and country club memberships.
The House gave final approval Thursday to four of the tax bills aimed at generating money for Kirwan. The bill applying the sales tax to luxury services is still pending in the House, which is scheduled to take it up during an evening session on Thursday.
“We want to make sure we have the next five years [of Kirwan] fully ramped up and ready,” Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat said.
Though the state’s budget must be balanced each year, legislative budget analysts say they’re concerned about the size of the state’s structural deficit in future years, forecasting a $701 million shortfall by fiscal year 2022 and $1.1 billion by fiscal year 2025.
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Sen. Andrew A. Serafini, a Washington County Republican, called the budget a “great bill” that included “tough decisions," but he said he’d like to see more money dedicated to the rainy day fund.
Likewise, Hogan’s budget secretary, David Brinkley, called on lawmakers to restore any reductions to the rainy day fund in light of the spread of coronavirus.
“Given the inevitability that this situation is escalating, we urge the legislature to preserve as much money in the rainy day fund as possible,” Brinkley said.
The Senate’s version of the budget reduces an appropriation to the so-called rainy day fund by $284 million, but includes $1.2 billion in the rainy day fund and $129 million in cash reserves in the general fund.
“We’re being mindful of the economic situation at the moment and we’re prepared,” Ferguson said.
The budget now advances to the House for consideration.
Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.