House OKs bill to curb spending by governor

Measure addresses action outside Assembly session

General Assembly

March 17, 2004|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

The House of Delegates voted by a veto-proof majority yesterday to curb the power of the governor and Board of Public Works to cut state spending outside the session without General Assembly involvement.

The bill passed yesterday is the Democratic House leadership's response to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich's cuts last July, when he won board approval of about $208 million in reductions to the budget passed three months earlier.

The legislation passed 90-48 as five Democrats joined all 43 Republicans in voting against it. It takes 85 votes to override a gubernatorial veto.

The bill is the second attempt by Democrats in recent weeks to impose new limits on the strong budget powers wielded by Maryland governors. The other, a constitutional amendment that would have given lawmakers more authority to move money within the budget, failed in the Senate last week.

Ehrlich characterized the two measures as partisan attempts to embarrass him by Democrats who are still stewing over the 2002 election. "There is only one reason, a Republican administration," he said.

The Board of Public Works now can make cuts of up to 25 percent, an amount the bill would reduce to 10 percent, with little notice. The legislation would require the board to give 21 days notice of any proposed reductions, to consult with the legislature's budget committees and to hold public hearings.

The bill also would require the governor to make a determination that the cuts were necessary to avoid a deficit in the current budget year. Last year, the governor proposed the cuts - most of them in health programs - though the budget was showing a slight surplus. He argued that action was needed to get a handle on a projected shortfall in the next budget.

House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve called Ehrlich's use of the powers last year "wholly unwarranted." The Montgomery County Democrat urged his colleagues to "protect the prerogatives and freedoms of the legislative branch."

Republicans contended that the bill would tie the hands of the governor in an economic crisis. They noted that the same powers were used under former Gov. William Donald Schaefer, a Democrat, to deal with a budget crisis in the early 1990s without prompting such a response.

"The only thing that really has changed is who occupies the office upstairs," said Del. Gail H. Bates, a Howard County Republican.

Legislative action:

LACROSSE: The Senate voted 35-10 yesterday for a bill by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller designating lacrosse as the state team sport. Jousting would remain the official state sport.

BALLISTICS: A bill to repeal the state's requirement that gun dealers forward a sample projectile fired from each handgun sold in the state to the state police for inclusion in a ballistic database was withdrawn yesterday by its sponsor, Del. Kevin Kelly, an Allegany County Democrat. Kelly said he withdrew the bill when the state police agreed to study the current law for a year.

KINDERGARTEN: The House Ways and Means Committee killed three bills yesterday that would have diluted the state commitment to all-day kindergarten programs under the Thornton Commission's school reform plan. One bill would have extended by four years the requirement that many of the state's schools provide all-day kindergarten.

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