Senate panel OKs tiny spending increase

0.9% rise would cut Glendening budget by $477 million

March 12, 2002|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

The Senate Budget and Taxation Committee finished work on its budget proposal yesterday, approving a plan that would increase state spending by less than 1 percent next year.

The measure calls for broad cuts in Gov. Parris N. Glendening's environmental protection programs, and the University System of Maryland would get no additional money next year.

In their final work session, committee members scrambled to partly restore some of their earlier cuts, finding an extra $1 million for community colleges, $1 million for grants to local arts groups and $300,000 to encourage people to live near where they work.

Nevertheless, the panel's chairwoman, Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat, described the $477 million worth of cuts in Glendening's $22 billion budget as "unkind across the board," saying the committee spread the pain "as fairly as we could."

Lawmakers say Glendening's budget for the year that will begin July 1 had a $1 billion gap between revenues and expenditures - relying heavily on reserves to make up the difference - and that the gap could widen in subsequent years without significant cuts.

The committee's budget plan is scheduled to go to the full Senate tomorrow and to be debated at length Friday, with passage next week. In the meantime, the House Appropriations Committee is developing proposed cuts in Glendening's budget, with the full House set to debate the plan next week. House and Senate negotiators will resolve the differences.

Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat and chairman of the House panel, predicted its cuts will be similar to the Senate's but differ in some areas. "The budget the governor has given us wouldn't even hold water in elementary school 101 finances," he said.

Though the Senate panel would increase spending by 0.9 percent, it would cut more deeply into the general fund operating budget, which is driven by tax revenues and includes most state services. That budget would decline 0.6 percent next year, analysts said, from $10.53 billion to $10.46 billion.

The plan earned the support of two of the committee's three Republicans, who have been reluctant in recent years to vote for the state budget. "My test is, `Does the budget grow faster than personal income?' " said Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, an Eastern Shore Republican and the Senate minority leader. "It doesn't, and I intend to vote for it now."

One of the two dissenting committee votes was cast by Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr., a Montgomery County Democrat and the committee's vice chairman. Van Hollen - who resigned a subcommittee chairmanship last week to protest the budget-cutting - said he would prefer to raise the cigarette tax and delay the 2 percent income tax cut.

Assembly leaders have rejected Glendening's effort to delay the tax cut, though they appear to be willing to raise the tobacco tax, earmarking the money for a specific purpose such as education.

Senators worked yesterday to reduce some of the cuts they thought most severe. A $3 million cut in Glendening's $26 million effort to reduce class sizes became a $1.5 million cut. And $2 million was restored to such educational organizations as the Baltimore Zoo.

Senators said they intend to reject all local bond bills this year, a move they hope the House will back. The bond bills are debts assumed by the state to assist local governments and nonprofit groups with construction projects, but approving them could force delays to state projects.

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