Governor's priorities preserved

Joint budget panel includes funds for schools, environment

`We're very pleased'

Committee cuts $30 million from mass transit plan

April 02, 2001|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

House and Senate budget leaders reached agreement yesterday to preserve much of the money for Gov. Parris N. Glendening's top spending priorities for next year, including mass transit, higher education and the environment.

Among the biggest decisions made yesterday by the joint budget conference committee was cutting $30 million from Glendening's $69 million plan to expand and improve mass transit - a significant cut, but far less than the reduction initially proposed by the Senate.

"We're very pleased with the decision," said T. Eloise Foster, Glendening's budget chief. "It ends up being a six-year, $500 million program, which is a lot better than the $300 million plan that was passed by the Senate."

The governor had been proposing to launch a six-year, $750 million transit initiative that would have expanded subway service in Baltimore to Sundays, reduced bus fares in the city by 25 cents and purchased more buses and subway cars for Washington-area commuters.

But as legislators looked for ways to trim at least $200 million from Glendening's budget proposal to meet their self-imposed spending guidelines, the mass transit initiative became a big target. A spokesman for the governor said yesterday that it's not clear what elements of the mass transit plan might be eliminated or reduced by the General Assembly's cuts.

The House and Senate are set to take final votes on Glendening's $21 billion spending plan tonight. The decisions made during the weekend by the joint committee of five delegates and five senators are considered certain to be upheld.

The joint committee also compromised yesterday on how much new money to give to Maryland's public colleges and universities, settling on a 9.9 percent budget increase for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

Glendening's initial spending plan had sought a 14.3 percent increase, and yesterday's compromise falls between the 8.9 percent increase passed by the Senate and the 10.3 percent increase proposed by the House of Delegates. The state's higher education system will have $84 million more next year.

"I think everybody ought to be pleased with this," said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.

In an effort to create additional cash reserves for Maryland in case the nation's economic woes reach the state, the legislators agreed yesterday to fund more of Glendening's "Greenprint" land preservation through new state debt, rather than cash.

The decision enables the Assembly to provide funds for $35 million of the $40 million Greenprint program proposed by Glendening - a huge change from the $20 million cut proposed by the Senate. It's intended to be the start of a five-year, $145 million program to try to preserve 2 million environmentally sensitive acres across Maryland.

"We're ecstatic about the Greenprint decision," Foster said. "For us to get $35 million is a wonderful decision."

Among the items left virtually unchanged by the legislators was a $22 million increase in state spending on drug treatment for addicts, a third of which would go to Baltimore. That funding was one of Mayor Martin O'Malley's top priorities this year, as was the $55 million in extra aid to the school system that emerged unscathed by the weekend budget process.

The cuts included small proposals such as $100,000 for an assessment of the diamondback terrapin and large budget items such as $3.3 million of the $6.3 million sought by Glendening to pay bonuses to state employees who receive good job performance ratings.

The committee eliminated the $100,000 for the nonprofit Alliance for Southern Prince George's Communities Inc. - a group that has the strong support of Sen. Gloria G. Lawlah, a Prince George's Democrat, and operates out of her district office to distribute grants to community groups.

"We don't think senators ought to be setting up their own special programs," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

The joint committee decided to keep a $250,000 request to begin leasing a $5 million airplane for the governor's travel and the extradition of prisoners. The current plane used by the governor is more than 30 years old and is out of service about four months a year, according to the governor's staff.

"I would not want to be in this position of continuing a plane this old," Rawlings said, referring to last fall's plane crash that killed the governor of Missouri. "I would not want this on my conscience."

But legislators cut the $200,000 that had been sought for operation and maintenance of the plane - telling the Maryland State Police who fly it to find the money elsewhere in their budget.

On Saturday, the joint budget committee struck agreement on one of the most contentious areas of Glendening's budget plan, approving $5 million for textbooks for students in private and parochial schools. That's $3 million less than the amount sought by Glendening and $1 million less than private schools were allocated this fiscal year.

In Annapolis

Today's highlights

11 a.m. House of Delegates meets, House chamber.

6:15 p.m. Senate meets, Senate chamber.

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