Governor, mayor spin state budget

O'Malley critical

Ehrlich blames House Democrats

General Assembly

April 14, 2004|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

During a time when government funding is scarce, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley appropriated generous amounts of rhetoric yesterday to spin the state budget.

Although city schools will receive $51 million more in the year starting July 1, O'Malley ridiculed Ehrlich's $23.6 billion spending plan approved Monday as a "budget of mass destruction." The mayor called it a "make-believe budget" that tried - but failed - to use slot-machine revenue to "fool and con the public."

O'Malley said the legislative session was a loser because it cut state aid to programs other than education, forcing local governments to raise taxes or make cuts.

"All local governments are being forced to raise taxes," O'Malley said during a morning news conference. "These cuts rolling down from the budgets of mass destruction at the state and federal level are forcing increased burdens on local government."

Five hours later, Ehrlich - a Republican whom many believe will be challenged in 2006 by Democratic O'Malley - held a news conference with a political antagonist of the mayor's, city State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy.

Standing at Jessamy's side in the basement of the east building of the Baltimore Circuit Courthouse, Ehrlich portrayed himself as a fighter for the city's interests despite a legislature with an "anti-Baltimore bias."

O'Malley and Jessamy have feuded bitterly in the past over law enforcement, and Ehrlich heaped glowing praise on her.

Ehrlich and Jessamy posed in front of television cameras next to a large mock $1.7 million check showing the amount the state is to give Jessamy's office next fiscal year. It is slightly less than her office received from the state and federal governments this year. The governor said he wanted to give more but was frustrated by House Democrats.

"I am very happy to help out," Ehrlich said. "You are such a class act to deal with. We have had a good relationship. The first lady sends her best. We love dealing with you."

Ehrlich declined to respond to O'Malley's criticism of his budget. But the governor said he was "very happy" with the legislative session because it included millions of dollars in increases for education and legislation to upgrade the state's sewage treatment facilities.

"This means historic increases for public education all over the state, in particular for Baltimore City," Ehrlich said.

In all categories, the city will see a $43 million increase in state funding next fiscal year, rising to $951 million from $908 million, according to state budget officials. This includes a $51 million boost for education, as part of the Thornton Commission plan, approved in 2002, for reforming education statewide by reducing disparities between rich and poor districts.

City schools Chief Executive Officer Bonnie S. Copeland said yesterday that she is "thrilled" to receive the money - an 8.2 percent increase - although it was less than the $60 million that she at one time thought the schools might receive.

As the schools struggle with a huge deficit, this infusion of cash will allow the administrators to avoid raising the average class size in primary grades from 20 students per teacher to 22 students, Copeland said.

"We had been worried that we would have to increase class size, but with this money we can keep the class sizes the way they are now," said Copeland. "We are also looking to expand our programs for gifted and talented students ... and continue to reform our high schools."

But O'Malley's City Hall, which is independent from the city's school system, won't directly benefit from this increase.

O'Malley said that Ehrlich was paying for the mandated Thornton improvements to education by cutting assistance to other areas of local government.

In programs controlled by O'Malley, Ehrlich's budget included $8 million in cuts, including a $2.2 million reduction for parks, a $415,000 cut for city police, $65,000 less for transportation for the elderly and disabled, and $13,000 less for fire and rescue services, city officials said.

These reductions come while the city is faced with a gap of up to $40 million in its budget for the year beginning July 1. An early draft of O'Malley's budget proposed the elimination of 533 municipal jobs.

But O'Malley said yesterday he's looking to avoid layoffs as much as possible by raising taxes or fees. Among his options are raising the city's recordation tax, which people pay when they buy real estate; imposing an energy tax on nonprofit organizations; raising the city's real estate tax cap; and imposing a tax on cellular phones.

O'Malley said Ehrlich's refusal to consider tax increases means local governments will be forced to raise taxes. "For a few years, we've been taping together this make-believe [state] budget that supports itself by raiding one-time funds, by raiding Medicare and raiding mental health," O'Malley said. "It leaves us in a difficult position."

Henry Fawell, a spokesman for the governor, said Ehrlich had no choice but to take money away from other local programs because Democrats scuttled his plan to pay for education through slot-machine revenue.

"It's unfortunate that the House Democrats chose to kill the governor's slots plan because that's $400 million more that we could have used to fund education, and that would relieve pressure on other local programs," Fawell said.

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