ANNAPOLIS -- House and Senate leaders tentatively agreed last night to try to save about $85 million in program cuts as part of Gov. William Donald Schaefer's $450 million deficit-reduction plan, including at least part of the General Public Assistance welfare program.
Also on the list for possible restoration are reductions involving state police, medevac helicopters, drug and alcohol treatment programs, the public defender's office, and other programs that, if the cutbacks are allowed to stand, could actually cost the state more later, said legislators who participated in a two-hour, closed-door budget meeting last night.
Many of them quickly acknowledged, however, that saving the programs that Mr. Schaefer cut will only transfer the pain of budget reductions to other areas of government -- including to local governments and state employees.
Although some Senate leaders insist a tax increase is the only long-range answer to the state's fundamental budget problems, they bowed last night to the wishes of their House colleagues and -- for now -- took the tax issue off the table.
One idea that appeared to be gaining broad acceptance, however, is to give the governor broader authority to cut state aid to local governments. Mr. Schaefer has been unable to touch about $2.1 billion in such aid -- most of it going to Baltimore and the 23 counties for public schools -- because it is protected by state law.
To soften the blow of such a cut to Baltimore and some of the state's other poor jurisdictions, lawmakers last night suggested giving Mr. Schaefer greater authority to cut aid to wealthier subdivisions than to the poorer ones.
But easing the pain of a new round of cuts will not help jurisdictions that could not afford the original round, complained Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, D-Baltimore.
"It is like: Do you want to be shot or stabbed?" she said. "Some [jurisdictions] can support [deeper cuts]. But Baltimore, because has lived on the edge so long, it has no reserves. And we can't raise the property tax or we won't have any tax base left."
Also considered last night was a plan to order most state employees to take as many as seven unpaid holidays during the year. Each day off would save the state approximately $4.5 million.
House and Senate leaders would say little publicly about what was decided last night, saying they first needed to discuss the issues with the full House and Senate leadership today. House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, said that the legislature hopes to have a plan ready to give to the governor by 4 p.m. tomorrow.
The decision to try to save about $85 million in programs was a scaled back version of a $120 million plan the House offered to Mr. Schaefer Saturday. At that time, delegates were seeking to restore the full General Public Assistance program for disabled adults.
Last night's plan, however, would only restore a part of the program that does not involve reimbursement to hospitals. Instead, it would urge hospitals to attempt to recover the "bad debt" from providing such care by seeking expedited rate increases.
Several lawmakers said that the decision to seek only partial restoration of the GPA program represented a consensus among the legislators last night that virtually all programs are going to have to share to some degree in the budget reduction effort.
But top legislative leaders conceded privately that they are worried that legislators will be skittish about voting for any additional cuts to local government aid, but may be opposed to raising taxes as well.