Delegates unanimously approve a state budget for next fiscal year

House, Senate to work on differences in plans

March 27, 2004|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

In a display of cohesion that belies an unresolved debate over slots and taxes, the Maryland House of Delegates adopted a $23.6 billion budget for the coming fiscal year by a rare unanimous vote yesterday.

The state Senate approved a similar version of a spending plan a week ago, also without dissent. The two sides will now meet to resolve relatively minor differences in spending priorities and more significant conflicts in budget language that restricts or mandates certain programs.

Republicans and Democrats in both chambers were able to pass a budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 without any `no' votes because contentious items such as the House's proposed sales and income tax increases, and the Senate's snack tax proposal and slot-machine gambling plan, are contained in separate bills.

"It's a very special moment when everyone can come to an agreement on the most important document the state of Maryland puts out," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch.

Del. Norman H. Conway, an Eastern Shore Democrat in his first months as Appropriations Committee chairman after the death of Del. Howard P. Rawlings of Baltimore, said he was "humbled" by the one-sided vote. "It's a dream that you have," he said.

House Minority Whip Anthony J. O'Donnell said the chamber's 43 GOP members voted as a group for the plan - a reversal from a year ago - because the budget closely followed a proposal issued by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in January.

"It's a testament to his leadership," O'Donnell said.

Committees of negotiators will meet during the final two weeks of the General Assembly session to work out differences on the budget, taxes and slots. Because both chambers passed balanced spending plans, it is possible for lawmakers to reject both slots and higher taxes, returning next year for another attempt to solve the projected future gap between spending and revenue.

Like the Senate, the House budget increases spending on public education and libraries from $3.37 billion to $3.72 billion, the largest amount in state history. Overall, spending in the general fund - which covers most services for citizens - would rise 8.7 percent, to $11.2 billion.

Both budgets contain money for pay raises for state employees, but they distribute it differently. The Senate concurred with Ehrlich that all workers should receive a 1.6 percent increase. The House would provide a $752 raise for all workers next year - which rewards lower-income workers more.

Despite their agreement, delegates found much to debate yesterday. Republicans fought unsuccessfully to undo a Democratic maneuver that would cut $28 million from the budget of the Department of Business and Economic Development if Ehrlich vetoes a bill that would prohibit companies from avoiding income taxes by transferring their assets to shell companies in Delaware and other states.

"We are holding a gun to the people's head, saying `Governor, sign this bill,'" O'Donnell said. "This is a very, very bad precedent."

Republicans also tried to restore the authority of the state budget secretary to withhold money from state agencies by tinkering with the allotment schedule. Democrats stripped the authority after budget chief James C. "Chip" DiPaula Jr. surprised many by holding back money to send a budget-balancing message last year.

"This use was never intended by the General Assembly," Conway said. The GOP effort failed.

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