Legislature approves budget for next year

OK is accompanied by complaints that plan is too ambitious

April 04, 2001|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

The General Assembly gave grudging final approval yesterday to a $21 billion budget for next year amid complaints that the spending plan is too ambitious for economically uncertain times.

In a sign of fiscal unease that has been building for weeks, the Senate approved the conference committee report on the budget by a vote of 33-14, an unusually high number of dissents. The House had given its final approval Monday night after its own round of complaints.

"This budget does not face reality," said Del. Robert L. Flanagan, the House Republican whip. "Even if the economy stays on even keel and revenues remain steady, we are facing a self-inflicted budget crisis."

But several Democratic lawmakers defended the budget and said the legislature would make cuts later in the year if the economy weakens significantly.

"This one is no worse than any of the others we've had," said Sen. Clarence W. Blount, a Baltimore Democrat in his 31st year in the Senate.

During extended Senate debate, some lawmakers also vented about Maryland's constitutionally mandated budget process, which gives virtually all of the power to the governor. The Assembly can only cut from the governor's budget proposal, not add spending or move money between programs.

Lawmakers who want a certain project to be funded are forced to persuade the governor to include the money in a supplemental budget near the end of the session.

Glendening proposed a $155 million supplemental budget Friday - three days before the constitutional deadline for approving the budget, giving legislators almost no time to analyze the new spending.

Sen. Robert R. Neall, who is considered one of the Assembly's experts on budgetary matters, decried the process as "an insidious force that is eroding the independence of this body."

Neall, an Anne Arundel Democrat, went on to ask Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller to remove him from the budget committee because the process is so stacked against the legislature.

"I will not continue to work under these conditions," Neall said.

State officials have taken steps in recent weeks to ease a budget crunch should Maryland's economy slow significantly. Officials scaled back their estimates of next year's income tax collections by $50 million. And lawmakers have delayed more than $130 million in building projects so they can be canceled if the state's revenue collections fail to reach their projected levels.

Many legislators have grumbled in recent days about one relatively small item - $450,000 Glendening proposed in the supplemental budget to begin lease-purchase payments on a new plane for the state police.

A conference committee of delegates and senators reduced that amount to $240,000 amid concerns that the new plane was an extravagance. It will replace a 1980 model.

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