Ehrlich presses for cuts in budget

He urges action, says he'd convene Assembly

Townsend sees no need

October 19, 2002|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

CAMBRIDGE - Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said yesterday that if elected governor, he would ask the General Assembly leadership to immediately call a special session to come up with hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts to Maryland's budget.

After participating in a candidates forum before the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, the Baltimore County congressman said he's growing increasingly frustrated that Gov. Parris N. Glendening has not taken enough steps to address the $418 million shortfall in the current year's budget and the $1.3 billion gap projected for next year.

"Every day that goes by without action from this administration, there's a greater likelihood that we're going to have a real big problem in January," Ehrlich told reporters.

But Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend - while saying she also wants Glendening to act more quickly on budget cuts - said a special session wouldn't be necessary.

"It's not required and not needed at all," said Townsend, who called for immediate cuts last month as soon as fiscal analysts increased their two-year budget shortfall forecast to $1.7 billion. "I'm going to make sure we'll make the cuts early in January and I think that's the appropriate way to go."

Townsend also said the governor and Board of Public Works have authority to make spending cuts of up to 20 percent without legislative action. Maryland's spending plan for the current year is about $22 billion, but its general funds budget - which accounts for most state services as well as education aid - is slightly less than $11 billion.

Ehrlich agreed that the governor is the one who has the authority, but said if the General Assembly were to meet and agree on a list of cuts, perhaps lawmakers could influence Glendening to act more quickly and decisively. He also questioned Townsend's role and effectiveness within the administration if Glendening refuses to listen to her request for immediate cuts.

"Either she's a partner in the administration or she isn't; that's been the continuing issue in the campaign," Ehrlich said. "As a candidate or candidate-elect, I can't make any cuts. But this would be about creating an environment where the governor would be more likely to act."

The Maryland Constitution requires the governor to convene a special session if a majority of the members in the Senate and House of Delegates petition for one.

A Glendening spokesman said yesterday that the governor recognizes the need to make budget cuts but believes it's premature to make significant decisions until after next month's election. The only major budget action taken since the worsening fiscal projections were released was a tightening of the hiring freeze that has been in place in state government for a year, making it much more difficult for agencies to fill vacant positions.

"The election is only two weeks away," said spokesman Charles Porcari. "The governor believes that after the election, he will meet with the governor-elect and the legislative leaders to begin having discussions about what cuts need to be made."

Democratic legislative leaders said yesterday that they see little need for a special session to address the budget shortfall.

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. said Maryland can balance the 2003 budget by using its $500 million rainy day fund - a resource that was not available during the fiscal crisis of the early 1990s.

"We certainly don't need a special session to deal with this year's problem," said Taylor, a Democrat. "We still have a fully funded rainy day fund ... which is more than enough to balance this year's budget."

Taylor said he would prefer that budget cuts be made sooner, but added that Glendening's plan to meet with the governor-elect and legislative leaders to look for trims was reasonable.

Sen. Robert R. Neall, an Anne Arundel Democrat and influential member of the Budget and Taxation Committee, said cuts should be made by the governor immediately. He said a special session was a bad idea.

Glendening criticized

"This budget was in trouble the moment it took effect. The state of Maryland has an executive budget system. Once it is enacted, it is the executive's responsibility to manage that budget," Neall said. "Every day that passes, we lose yet another opportunity to bring the fiscal 2003 budget closer to balance."

Neall criticized Glendening for waiting: "I would say he is acting contrary to his responsibility under Maryland's Constitution."

Some lawmakers also questioned whether Maryland's budget situation is so severe that it requires a special session. Previous special sessions were called during the 1991-1992 recession and during the savings and loan crisis in the mid-1980s.

"This is not anywhere near as bad as the situation in the early '90s when we had a free fall in the budget and no reserves," said Del. Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel Democrat and chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee.

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