Parks program may survive in Md. budget Restoration of funds hinges on size of deficit

June 19, 1991|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- If Maryland's latest budget deficit turns out to be no worse than projected, legislative leaders said yesterday, they will spare from the budget-cutting knife a popular parkland-acquisition program and, possibly, some housing programs.

Legislators have been pressured by environmentalists, as well as county and municipal governments, to save an $11.9 million program intended to reimburse local governments for money already committed to property purchases under the state's Program Open Space.

"Of all environmental issues, nothing is more important than addressing the questions of population growth, development and sprawl," said Sen. Gerald W. Winegrad, D-Anne Arundel, in arguing for restoration of the parkland funds.

The chairmen of the House and Senate budget committees, Delegate Charles J. Ryan Jr., D-Prince George's, and Sen. Laurence Levitan, D-Montgomery, responded by assuring witnesses at a public hearing on a budget-balancing bill that the parkland-acquisition program will be the first to be restored if the deficit does not exceed expectations.

Last month, legislators learned that the recession was continuing to pummel income and sales-tax receipts, along with other sources of state revenue, quickly throwing a budget that was balanced in April as much as $109 million in the red by May.

To get the spending plan back into balance, as required by the Maryland Constitution, Gov. William Donald Schaefer and legislative leaders agreed to belt-tightening measures and transfers from special funds that would raise $125 million. The extra money was intended as a hedge in case the deficit grew worse.

William S. Ratchford II, budget adviser to the General Assembly, said that revenue collections through May indicate no significant change from the original estimate of a $109 million deficit. The recession does not appear to have worsened since that projection, but neither has a recovery begun, he said.

Yesterday, the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee and the House Appropriations Committee held a joint hearing on the budget-balancing bill, which is to be voted on at a one-day special session a week from today.

After the first half-dozen witnesses protested the cut in the parkland-acquisition money, Mr. Levitan said the message was "coming through loud and clear," adding, "By current projections, there should be enough money" to restore the programs.

"We share those concerns, and we'll try to make certain those funds are restored on afirst-dollar basis," he said.

Among the proposed cuts is $5.9 million from a state program that provides loans for low-income housing. Advocates for the poor showed up in force yesterday to argue for restoration of the housing funds, saying the unavailability of such housing has reached crisis proportions.

As originally drafted, the budget-balancing bill would give Mr. Schaefer discretion to restore programs with any money left over when the books for fiscal 1991 are closed in mid-August and the exact size of the deficit is known.

But Mr. Levitan and Mr. Ryan said the legislature instead intends to require that any money left over go first to the parkland program and, if there is still money left after that, to housing programs.

The $125 million plan calls for a variety of transfers, including the $27 million remaining in the state's emergency "rainy day fund," a total of $30.9 million from all open-space programs, $5 million from the state's insurance fund, and smaller amounts from such diverse sources as the Ocean City beach-replenishment program and the Maryland Deposit Insurance Fund's recoveries of savings and loan assets.

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