`Aggressive' state budget favors higher education

Governor plunges ahead despite slowing economy

9% increase sought

January 17, 2001|By Jeff Barker and Howard Libit | Jeff Barker and Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Undaunted by reports of a slowing economy, Gov. Parris N. Glendening proposed a $21.3 billion budget yesterday that is 9 percent bigger than this year's and stubbornly stays the course of providing generous funding for education and programs to combat sprawl.

The budget, which exceeds the General Assembly's self-imposed spending limit by nearly a quarter-billion dollars, is bursting with new money for colleges and universities and Smart Growth funding to check the advance of strip shopping centers and townhouse subdivisions.

More than one-third of the spending increase is directed at Maryland's public schools and its colleges and universities. "Education is the big winner in this budget," Glendening said.

He also wants to raise by $53 - to $185 - the state's monthly payment to disabled adults and to spend $4.5 million to hire 108 new parole and probation officers. Understaffing in the parole system became an issue last year when it was disclosed that a suspect in the killing of Maryland State Trooper Edward M. Toatley had remained free despite violating the terms of his probation 72 times.

Glendening said the state can afford the new initiatives because it is flush with surplus cash - the result of the booming economy of the past several years and a 1999 settlement with national tobacco companies.

To help pay for his proposals, the governor wants to tap heavily into an account containing $932 million in excess funds, while still leaving enough to satisfy the bond rating houses that give Maryland its top rating.

"This is an aggressive budget. It is very aggressive. It pushes the limit," Glendening said. "But there are great needs out there. It does reflect, I think, what is necessary to keep the prosperity going in Maryland."

Surplus or not, Republicans deemed it irresponsible for Glendening to pitch a 9 percent spending increase - the same as he proposed last year - in the face of projections of an economic downturn.

"Ten years ago, we had basically the same type of economic situation," said Sen. Martin G. Madden of Howard County, the Senate Republican leader, referring to the 1990s recession. "We shouldn't make the same mistakes we made then. Now is the time for fiscal restraint."

Maryland's Board of Revenue Estimates, chaired by the state comptroller, forecasts that revenue growth is slowing - from 4.6 percent in the current fiscal year to 2.9 percent in the one that will begin July 1.

Even some Democrats, who generally applauded Glendening's priorities, cautioned that he has put legislators in a "box" by forcing them to trim $234 million before they can begin making a case to add their own pet initiatives. Last year, Glendening's budget proposal was about $100 million over the legislative spending limit.

Glendening's spending plan for next year does not include money for a House leadership-backed initiative to provide state health coverage to an additional 60,000 adults who are uninsured. Glendening said that, while he is sympathetic to the proposal, he believes expanded health and prescription drug coverage is best dealt with at the federal level.

"We're put in a very tough position because we have to cut over $230 million just to get to the starting gate," said Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr., a Montgomery County Democrat. "Cutting $230 million doesn't make the legislature popular with anybody."

Glendening, who unveiled three telephone-book-size budget volumes at a news conference, suggested that their emphasis on education was partly the product of his own background. The governor, who attended a community college and Florida State University, was the first in his family to attend college.

He relied heavily on scholarships and said his higher-education initiatives are "almost a payback" to a system that helped him in his own life.

For the second year in a row, the operating budget for higher education would see a more substantial increase than for public schools: 14 percent for colleges and universities compared to 8.5 percent for kindergarten through 12th-grade education.

"Higher education suffered a disproportionate share of cuts back in the early 1990s when the recession hit," Glendening said. "There were massive cuts in higher education, and after three years, we are just getting back to where we should have been."

The $159 million increase in higher education spending includes $112.5 million for the University System of Maryland, with $44.4 million for the University of Maryland, College Park, where Glendening taught for many years. The budget also includes a 19 percent increase in scholarship money.

"I'm ecstatic," said Donald N. Langenberg, chancellor of the University System of Maryland. "This will help us continue to recruit and retain the very, very best faculty."

For Morgan State University, the proposed $6.7 million increase - a 14 percent increase in its operating budget - will help pay for significant improvements in technology across the campus.

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