Budget easily gets OK

April 05, 1994|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Sun Staff Writer

Free of the acrimony that colored the budget-cutting and tax debates of the past couple of years, the Maryland General Assembly approved last night an election-year spending plan loaded with millions of dollars for public schools and the first general pay raise for state workers in three years.

The Senate passed the budget 36-10 and sent it to the House of Delegates, which gave it final approval, 118-19.

Lawmakers managed to put together the $13.3 billion budget for the year that begins July 1 without tying it to any new taxes or fees. They even let expire a 6 percent income tax on Maryland's wealthiest citizens, which was approved on a temporary basis during the height of the recent recession, but was no longer needed as the state's economy began to rebound.

Before the General Assembly adjourns Monday, however, lawmakers may still approve legislation to link Maryland's cigarette tax with the federal tobacco tax, having the state tax go up whenever Congress raises the federal tax. But any revenue the state might receive from such a future increase is not being counted upon to balance next year's budget.

Even without a tax increase boost this year, lawmakers found enough money to increase the governor's original $81 million appropriation for school construction to beyond $100 million. They also boosted Mr. Schaefer's proposed $80 million increase in aid for education with another $15 million in school programs targeted for specific student populations or jurisdictions.

For state employees, they approved a cost-of-living increase designed to help lower-paid workers the most. The plan calls for employees to receive an $800 annual pay raise, or a 3 percent increase, whichever is greater. Any employee who earns $26,667 or less -- nearly half the state's 80,000-member work force -- is expected to qualify for the $800 raise.

By agreeing to push for the bill tying the state tobacco tax to the federal tax, House and Senate leaders convinced the governor to submit a pair of supplemental budgets late last week and yesterday in which he re-appropriated nearly $95 million the legislature had cut from his proposals. The money will instead pay for a long list of programs he and legislative leaders privately agreed upon.

Included in that list were millions of dollars for programs for schools with high numbers of students who are poor or cannot speak English; for health programs for the frail elderly; and for a special school for 40 disruptive middle school students.

At the request of House Appropriations Chairman Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat, Mr. Schaefer also agreed to finance a 2 percent increase in benefits for welfare families.

That late infusion of $3.2 million will raise the grant level for a family of three by about $7 a month, up to $373. That is about the level for welfare benefits in 1989, before the recession took its budget-cutting toll on that and other programs.

A number of the programs included in the supplemental budgets were originally slated to be financed by Mr. Schaefer's failed proposal to raise the state cigarette tax by a quarter a pack. But other programs he recommended, such as a $25 million grant to Baltimore and the 23 counties to help them pay for programs mandated by state law, were disapproved.

On top of the many spending priorities reflected in the plan, the final budget also:

* Repeals current restrictions on when state Medicaid funds may be used to pay for abortions for poor women. That action, however, takes effect only if the legislature passes separate welfare reform legislation that includes a provision denying additional payments to women who conceive and bear more children while receiving public assistance.

* Orders the state's Mass Transit Administration to work with the Amalgamated Transit Union on a summer study to devise ways to control exploding mass transit labor costs.

* Dropped a provision initially inserted by Baltimore Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman that would have withheld $1 million in highway funds for the city unless it added the word "Hon" to the "Welcome to Baltimore" sign greeting visitors arriving from the south.

Delegate Rawlings boasted the budget "reflects the fiscal discipline of the budget committees" but "also maintains a respectable level of social responsibility."

BUDGET HIGHLIGHTS

* $13.3 billion total, 5 percent more than this year's.

* Not dependent on new taxes, but higher cigarette tax still possible.

* State employee pay raise of 3 percent or $800, whichever is greater.

* Creates 1,032 new state jobs, most of them to staff new prisons.

7+ * 2 percent increase in welfare grants.

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