Senate OKs budget plan with little enthusiasm

Liberal Democrats, conservative GOP find fault with it

March 21, 2002|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

In a sign of how complex Maryland's budget difficulties are this year, both ends of the political spectrum in the Senate found themselves opposing the spending plan approved by the full chamber yesterday.

For liberal Democrats, the $21.6 billion plan does too little, exchanging an income tax cut for deep cuts to Gov. Parris N. Glendening's proposals for higher education and the environment. They also say it fails to meet the state's obligations for public schools.

"When it comes to making political statements, I find parts of the budget shameful," said Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George's County Democrat. "We go ahead with a modest tax cut and budgeting $4 million to private schools."

But for conservative Republicans, the budget tries to do too much and is ripe for more cuts.

"The budget is built on an unstable foundation because of the excessive spending of the last three years," said Sen. Larry E. Haines, a Carroll County Republican. "I think there is still room for some reductions."

Despite the joint opposition from liberals and conservatives, the Senate approved the spending plan yesterday 34-12. Almost everyone who spoke agreed that the budget isn't perfect, but those who voted for it said the Senate couldn't do anything else.

"We took what we had and made the best of it," said Sen. Gloria G. Lawlah, a Prince George's Democrat.

The Senate's spending plan - which cut Glendening's budget proposal by more than $477 million - now goes to the House of Delegates, which has been developing its set of cuts. The full House is expected to take up the budget this week, and negotiators from the two chambers must resolve differences by April 1, a week before the legislature is scheduled to adjourn.

Budget criticism

The budget has been sharply criticized by a variety of groups, including environmental activists, advocates for the poor and public higher education officials.

The University System of Maryland receives no funding increase under the Senate version, and spending sought by Glendening for environmental preservation programs has been significantly trimmed.

Hoping to stave off some of those cuts, the governor has been meeting regularly with lawmakers, at times threatening a veto. The governor cannot veto the budget, but he can reject a separate spending package required to balance the current year's finances - a move that likely would require the General Assembly to meet beyond its 90-day session.

The votes against the budget yesterday included eight Republicans and four Democrats - Pinsky, Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr. of Montgomery County, Sen. Nathaniel Exum of Prince George's County and Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV of Baltimore. Five Republicans voted for the budget.

Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery Democrat, voted for the budget but against the companion budget-balancing bill. He said he wanted to delay the income tax cut and raise the cigarette tax to generate more revenue.

Tax cut controversy

A delay in the income tax cut - a cost of about $75 to the average family of four - had been part of Glendening's original budget plan, but legislative leaders rejected the idea. They say the state must keep its promise on this year's final installment of the five-year, 10 percent tax cut, a decision that forced more than $170 million in spending reductions.

"Most people, if they knew what it was going for, they would agree to give up the $75," Mitchell said. "What we are doing is using this in an election year for re-election purposes."

But Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, a Baltimore County Democrat, reminded the Senate of the broken "No New Taxes" pledge of former President George Bush - and how it, in part, cost him re-election in 1992. "We're fulfilling that pledge and promise, and that's the least we can do," Bromwell said.

Fiscal leaders say the cuts to Glendening's budget are required because of a more than $1.2 billion gap between revenues and expenditures. The budget relies heavily on reserves to make up the differences, and lawmakers fear that the gap will widen in subsequent years without significant reductions.

Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat who is chairwoman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, said the Senate sought to cut back on spending "without decimating the people and the services they need."

"Maryland is a moderate state, and we tend to try to elect moderate people who try to do moderate things," Hoffman said. "This budget is in the middle."

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