Hot budget issues debated

House set for final vote

Plan cuts education funds, raises property taxes

`A Band-Aid to plug the hole'

March 21, 2003|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

The House of Delegates all but finished work on its budget yesterday after debating several issues tied to the $22.6 billion spending plan -- including taxes, abortion, ballistics-fingerprinting and public money for private schools.

The House package includes significant cuts to higher education and increased taxes on property owners and businesses, but does not rely on money from legalized slot machines.

A final vote on the plan is expected tomorrow. The spending proposal then goes to the Senate, which has indicated it will make significant changes.

"The House has made some tough decisions on both ends of the spectrum," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch, who expects the budget to be approved easily.

But some House Republicans are sharply critical of the budget, calling it a temporary fix that does nothing to solve the state's long-term woes. Though the House bill would create an $81 million surplus next year, legislative analysts project deficits approaching $2 billion within five years.

"This budget is a Band-Aid to plug the hole to get us through the year, but creates another nightmare next year," said Del. Kenneth D. Schisler, the House minority whip.

Busch and other House leaders blamed Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. for failing to deal with the state's long-term budget needs.

Ehrlich has said he needs two years to address the issue fully. He also refused to consider higher sales or income taxes this year, which some Democrats say is the only way to fill the projected deficits.

Still, talk continues among legislators about whether further taxes are needed this year for a permanent solution.

While some House members say they favor a sales tax, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said yesterday that a more palatable option is a two-year surcharge on the income taxes of wealthy residents -- an idea the state used during the last economic downturn.

"We're still going to have to come up with a tax to deal with the budget situation," Miller said yesterday. "The preferable tax is a surcharge on people who have extremely high incomes."

Ehrlich responded: "Obviously, that's nothing that would excite us very much."

The House budget includes a 50 percent increase in the state portion of the property tax, a concept championed by Ehrlich. The governor is opposed, however, to the $246 million in additional business taxes and fees included in the House proposal.

Several delegates from both parties challenged parts of the House budget during an almost six-hour debate.

Republican Del. Herbert H. McMillan of Anne Arundel County sought to strip the property tax increase -- which would cost the owner of a $100,000 house an additional $47 a year -- from the package.

The House defeated his amendment in a vote largely along party lines.

The most emotional debate came when Del. George W. Owings III, a Calvert County Democrat, tried to remove $2.5 million earmarked for Medicaid-funded abortions for poor women. "I for one don't want a dime of our state dollars spent to kill children," said Del. Emmett C. Burns Jr., a Baltimore County Democrat.

Several female delegates gave an equally passionate rebuttal. "I hope you men change your vote and think about your daughter being raped," said Del. Ruth M. Kirk, a Baltimore Democrat. The amendment failed, 82-55.

A proposal to eliminate a $3 million program to subsidize textbooks for some private school students also prompted intense discussion.

Del. Shane E. Pendergrass, a Howard County Democrat who sponsored the amendment, said the state could not afford to support private schools when the state is struggling to fund public schools. The House rejected the amendment, 79-55.

Gun control also surfaced as an issue when Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr., a Cecil County Republican, fought to take out more than a quarter-million dollars allotted for the Maryland State Police ballistics-fingerprinting program. Smigiel argued the program was a waste of money because no arrests have been directly linked to the technology.

Democrats successfully countered that the tests helped police in the fall during the hunt for the Washington-area sniper.

Sun staff writers David Nitkin and Stephanie Desmon contributed to this article.

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