Governor seeks tax-cut delay

His final budget boosts Medicaid, drug treatment funds

Assembly leaders wary

Most state agencies would get only small increases for inflation

January 16, 2002|By David Nitkin and Howard Libit | David Nitkin and Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Acknowledging that the national economic downturn has seeped into Maryland, Gov. Parris N. Glendening asked lawmakers yesterday to delay the final installment of a state income tax cut and spend a whopping $800 million in reserves to balance next year's budget.

Glendening released the eighth and final spending plan of his administration, a $22.2 billion proposal that would exceed this year's spending by 2.7 percent.

Some areas would get more money. Public schools would receive an additional $161 million, a 6.5 percent increase. Medicaid would get an extra $367 million to cover a deficit this year and pay for next year's benefits. Environmental programs, higher education and drug treatment would also get more.

But most state agencies would be asked to continue their jobs with only small increases for inflation.

While praising parts of the plan for the fiscal year that will begin July 1 and agreeing with the governor's general priorities, General Assembly leaders said they will look carefully for cuts that would allow the tax break to take effect as planned.

Many legislators also want to find the large amounts of money needed to begin fulfilling recommendations from a blue-ribbon school financing panel known as the Thornton Commission, money Glendening did not include in his proposal.

Glendening said Maryland is in better financial shape than most states are and that he wants to use several one-time cash infusions to maintain past commitments in education and the environment.

He proposes spending $800 million of $1.3 billion in reserves, which he said would preserve enough to maintain Maryland's coveted AAA bond rating. To build the reserve fund before tapping it, the governor wants to borrow $210 million to pay for construction projects approved in previous years, freeing the cash.

The tax-cut delay would provide an additional $175 million in one-time funds.

`Not a crisis budget'

"It is a tight budget, but it is not a crisis budget," Glendening said, adding that the time is right to draw on a "rainy day" fund built when the economy was rosier.

"There is not torrential downfall, but it is raining," the governor said. "We will draw on our reserves to get us through the downturn."

The Glendening budget proposal:

Does not include the extra money for schools that was recommended by the Thornton Commission, which recently concluded a study of Maryland's educational needs. The panel called for an additional $1.1 billion yearly for schools, and some lawmakers want to begin spending toward that goal next year.

Holds the state contribution to the employee pension system at $531 million, the same as this year, rather than raising it by $65 million to meet a legislative requirement to move toward full actuarial funding. Some lawmakers are criticizing the decision, but the governor said the state has 18 years to meet the full-funding goal, and is nearly there.

Maintains a hiring freeze that has been in effect since October. Glendening's spending plan includes $25 million for salary increases for state employees, the equivalent of a 2 percent raise that would take effect Jan. 1. The governor's plan would not require layoffs. The plan does not include money for proposed pay raises for legislators, judges and the next governor.

Includes higher spending in some areas. Though the overall budget increase is modest, the general fund operating budget - which is driven by state tax revenues and includes most state services - would grow 6.6 percent, from $10.1 billion to $10.7 billion. Lawmakers are likely to look to the operating budget as they search for cuts.

Some leading Republicans accused Glendening of relying on stopgap measures and continuing a pattern of overspending and delaying difficult decisions for another year, when a new governor takes office.

"We have had unprecedented, out-of-control state spending, and now it's time to pay the piper," said Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, an Eastern Shore Republican who is the Senate minority leader. "We're going to have bad times in our future, but they want to spend all of the rainy day reserves now."

Del. Robert L. Flanagan, a Howard County Republican, said the governor "is just passing on problems to the next generation."

Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, a leading candidate in this year's governor's race, called the spending plan prudent. Glendening's successor, she said, would not be burdened by this year's decisions.

"Our hope is that the economy will rebound," Townsend said. "There are indications that it will."

By proposing to postpone the 2 percent income tax cut - about $75 for an average Maryland family of four with an annual income of $53,000 - Glendening creates a political headache for lawmakers loath to renege on the commitment during an election year.

The budget proposal now moves to the General Assembly, which is permitted by law to cut the plan but not to add to it. If lawmakers want to restore the tax cut, they will have to trim the proposal.

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