Roads, bridges get priority for spending Lawmakers to fund highways,nothing else

June 19, 1991|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Evening Sun Staff Marina Sarris contributed to this story.

When it comes to building roads and bridges, Maryland lawmakers say they'll find the money -- even if means tapping motorists' pocketbooks.

But when it comes to funding parks and providing housing loans, they say money is in short supply these days and some projects will have to fall by the wayside.

At least that's the consensus of the General Assembly, which will return to Annapolis next Wednesday and, according to a leadership script for the special session, pass bills affecting both issues.

Legislators are expected to approve a bill requested by the Schaefer administration to raise about five dozen Motor Vehicle Administration fees, accumulating about $34 million this year. That money will free another $312 million in matching federal highway funds.

In return for passage of the bill, state transportation officials have pledged to go ahead with more than 120 highway, rail, bus and airport improvements that were put on hold in December when the department's capital budget nearly dried up.

Lawmakers also are expected to approve $125 million in cuts to agency budgets, as well as transfers from emergency funds, to balance the fiscal 1991 budget. By state law, the budget must be balanced by the time the fiscal year ends June 30.

Battered by the recession and shadowed by over-optimistic revenue projections, the current budget already has been cut four times. By the time the General Assembly enacts the latest round, the budget will have been trimmed by $676 million, about 10 percent of the entire general fund. That will drop the general fund to the 1990 budget level.

Although the projected deficit is $109 million, fiscal analysts recommend cutting $125 million to leave a little breathing room.

At public hearings on both bills yesterday in Annapolis, members of the House Appropriations and Senate Budget and Taxation committees listened stoically as budget experts explained why the measures were necessary.

The budget-balancing bill will hit many agencies -- and virtually .. wipe out the state's Rainy Day and Sunny Day emergency funds. But the loudest cries came from environmentalists and local government officials, who urged lawmakers not to cut $31 million that was budgeted for Program Open Space, a special fund that uses money generated by the real estate transfer tax to buy park and recreation land.

The proposed cuts include about $12 million for Open Space projects already approved by the state and, in some instances, already in progress. Another $19 million also would be cut from funds that have not yet been earmarked for specific projects.

Representatives of the Maryland Association of Counties and of the Maryland Municipal League, two groups representing local governments, pleaded with lawmakers to find cuts elsewhere in the budget.

Municipal League Chairman Jon Burrell said many towns, anticipating their share of the Open Space money, have begun park projects and may have to raise local taxes to cover costs if state funding is cut.

Sen. Gerald Winegrad, D-Anne Arundel, the Senate's leading environmentalist, told the committees that Open Space funding

has importance beyond paying for parkland.

"If you really want to restore the [Chesapeake] bay," he said, "Program Open Space is a direct link. I would implore you to have long-range vision for the future beyond this present budget crisis."

Lawmakers sounded sympathetic. Del. Charles J. Ryan, D-Prince George's, the Appropriations Committee chairman, said the budget bill will require that any of the $125 million in cuts not needed to cover the deficit be returned to Program Open Space. "That's our first priority," he said yesterday.

And Sen. Laurence Levitan, D-Montgomery, who chairs the Budget and Taxation Committee, agreed.

"We share those concerns and will work to make sure those funds are restored as the first dollars back," he said.

But the Schaefer administration is not happy with this approach. Fred Puddester, Gov. William Donald Schaefer's deputy budget chief, asked lawmakers not to set priorities for returning unused budget-balancing funds.

He said the governor, who is scheduled to return tomorrow from an economic development trip to the Far East, wants the flexibility to decide which agencies and programs should receive budget give-backs.

Meanwhile, advocates for the poor also urged lawmakers not to cut $5.6 million from the state Department of Housing and Community Development's housing loan budget. They said some state residents would be forced to live in "houses unfit for animals" if the loans were stopped.

Many of the same opponents of Open Space budget cuts, including MACO, testified in support of raising MVA fees so local road projects could be continued.

The MVA bill would make it easier to raise money without political fallout in the future under a compromise worked out by members of the state Senate and House of Delegates.

As currently drafted, the bill would give the MVA the power to raise many of its own fees, provided that the money from those fees does not exceed 85 percent of the agency's operating budget. The MVA also would have to submit the fee schedule to a legislative oversight committee for review.

The legislature would maintain control over the fees indirectly since it approves the MVA's budget each year, said Del. Thomas H. Hattery, D-Frederick.

However, the General Assembly would not have to vote directly to impose higher fees, as it does now.

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