House and Senate negotiators reached agreement on a $17.6 billion state budget yesterday, approving most of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's top spending priorities, even though he had to settle for a smaller tobacco tax increase than he proposed.
Higher education programs, Maryland's poorer subdivisions, Baltimore's overloaded Circuit Court and state employees were among the big winners as the General Assembly's fiscal leaders worked out their remaining differences on the operating budget.
The governor also prevailed in a dispute over a planned police training facility, as legislators bowed to his determination to change its location from Sykesville to a more densely populated area.
Late last night, negotiators also were close to an agreement on the final details of the capital budget.
The agreement on the operating budget came just in time for passage of the spending bill today, the last day of the General Assembly's 90-day legislative session.
The Assembly's approval of the budget was delayed by a session-long struggle over whether -- and by how much -- to increase the state's tobacco tax. The governor's original proposal of $1 over two years was cut to a one-time, 30-cent increase after a Senate filibuster, forcing the legislature to scale back proposed spending contingent on the original tax proposal.
In the end, the cuts -- about $200 million from the governor's $17.8 billion request -- were far less painful than key legislative leaders had predicted. Many of the cuts were achieved by taking money from reserve funds or deferring spending.
Frederick W. Puddester, the state budget secretary, said the governor was pleased with the results of the conference committee negotiations. "Every one of his initiatives was funded. Some of them were reduced slightly, but clearly the legislature was supportive of all his initiatives," Puddester said.
Among the spending proposals left intact by the conferees were $7.3 million to implement the recommendations of a commission on the University System of Maryland and $10 million to launch an economic development program for the state's less affluent jurisdictions -- seven rural counties and Baltimore City.
The latter was a notable victory for House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., whose home county of Allegany is one of the beneficiaries. Taylor, who made the "One Maryland" plan one of his top priorities, said the funding was "a great start" to a five-year, $50 million aid program.
Legislative negotiators agreed to provide all of the $3.8 million the governor requested to unclog the backlog in Baltimore's Circuit Court. But the funds -- including money for courtrooms, the central booking facility, the public defender's office and the city state's attorney -- come with a requirement that all of the feuding agencies in the criminal justice system agree on a comprehensive plan before the money can be spent.
Glendening gained another victory as negotiators restored $1.5 million in previously cut money to launch his HOPE scholarship program for aspiring teachers. Puddester said the money will let the program get a start this fall, with the first money going to seniors and graduate students.
The governor also won approval of $1.4 million to give Montgomery County a year's head start on a statewide program to reduce class size for reading programs in the early grades.
Baltimore won $1.8 million in proposed spending for the Hippodrome Performing Arts Center, seen as key to the revitalization of the west side of downtown.
Among other actions, the conferees:
Approved $255 million in school construction spending, trimming $5 million of the $10 million that was tied to the tobacco tax.
Restored the governor's cost-of-living raise for state employees to its original form -- $1,275 per worker, half in July and half in January. The House and Senate had broken it into four quarterly increases -- a less lucrative plan for state workers.
Tentatively agreed to spend $2 million for a state police crime laboratory in Pikesville, where state officials have identified a site on Reisterstown Road.
Provided $750,000 of the $1 million requested for Supercamp, a summer program that aims to boost reading skills of Baltimore third-graders.
Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, chairwoman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, said she had never had "a more horrible budget year" because of the governor's decision to link the tobacco tax to the spending bill. But lawmakers decided Glendening's priorities were good ones, she said.
"He should be very pleased with the results," the Baltimore Democrat said.
Pub Date: 4/12/99