Legislative panel hems in Ehrlich on spending

Some speculate move is `a political ploy'

December 17, 2003|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

A key General Assembly committee handed Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. a bitter pill last night, asking him to keep budget growth next year to 4.37 percent, a figure that translates into deeper cuts than the Republican administration wanted.

A meeting of the state Spending Affordability Committee was rife with intrigue, as Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller pushed for a far lower spending limit than House Speaker Michael E. Busch wanted.

But both legislative branches were advocating a lower ceiling than the administration desired, leading a Republican senator to accuse ruling Democrats of intentionally boxing Ehrlich into a corner.

"I absolutely believe it was a political game," said Eastern Shore Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, the minority leader. "The cuts in this [coming] budget have been mandated by the Democratic legislature."

Top Democrats countered that they are advocating the same fiscal prudence Ehrlich says he wants.

"I thought it was a fair number," Busch said.

The figure agreed to last night means that the state's $10.3 billion operating budget can grow by $315 million. While Ehrlich is not bound by the limit, last night's vote means that lawmakers will in all likelihood cut the spending plan the governor proposes in mid-January if it is higher than $10.6 billion.

Still, the $315 million in growth is far less than projected state expenditures. The so-called Thornton plan to spend more money on public schools calls for $388 million in new spending, and Medicaid expenses are expected to grow by $240 million.

Legislative analysts estimate that $409 million in cuts to other areas will be needed.

While Ehrlich frequently says he is a proponent of the legislative committee's spending guidelines dating to his days as a Baltimore County delegate, state Budget Secretary James C. "Chip" DiPaula Jr. would not commit last night.

"The governor wants to submit a prudent budget," DiPaula said. "We are going to be taking this into consideration."

The tension coursing through the committee meeting reflected growing frustration between the governor and legislative leaders over how to solve the state's budget deficit. Earlier in the day, DiPaula and Ehrlich aide Paul E. Schurick met privately with Busch, asking again for the speaker's support of a slot-machine gambling plan.

No agreement was reached.

"It's the same old story: Mike Busch, Chip DiPaula meet; No ground gained," Busch said. "They are always willing to talk about slots. They're not willing to talk about the budget."

Meeting each year in the weeks before the governor finishes his budget, the affordability committee - made up of equal numbers of senators and delegates - recommends a growth rate to keep state spending increases in line with a target based on the estimated rise in Marylanders' personal income.

Today, another piece of the budget picture will come into focus, when officials set an official estimate of next year's revenues from income and sales taxes, the lottery and all other sources to pay for state operations.

But setting a legislative budget target yesterday proved to be a tricky task. Analysts predicted an income growth rate of 4.6 percent. Administration officials, however, had been working with a higher figure, counting on 4.83 percent growth, which would have given them $66 million more than the final figure.

Senators wanted to go much lower. Sen. Ulysses Currie, chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, proposed limiting budget growth to $248 million, meaning roughly $500 million in cuts would be needed. Miller backed that figure in a private meeting before the public session, invoking the ire of House members.

House members voted against the idea, joined by Republican Sen. Donald F. Munson of Hagerstown. Stoltzfus, the minority leader, abstained.

Moments later, Stoltzfus and Munson sided with Busch, who proposed the 4.37 percent growth rate - higher than the Senate wanted and lower than the administration wanted.

Stoltzfus said later that the growth figure is less than what lawmakers would have set under a Democratic governor.

Referring to Democratic calls for fiscal restraint, Stoltzfus said: "Maybe they finally get it, or maybe it's a political ploy."

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