Spending plans stay wrapped in secrecy

Governor refuses to share agency budget details with Assembly analysts

Ehrlich keeps agency budget plans secret

September 18, 2004|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is refusing to share state agency directors' plans for cutting up to 12 percent from department budgets, imposing an unusual secrecy that is irritating some lawmakers.

Breaking tradition, the Department of Budget and Management has ordered agencies not to release budget information to General Assembly analysts before Ehrlich's spending plan is unveiled in January.

While past departmental budget requests have been similar to the final plan, that won't be the case this year, Budget Secretary James C. "Chip" DiPaula Jr. said.

DiPaula has embarked on a "strategic budgeting" exercise, asking every agency to conduct reviews and propose spending cuts with a goal of wiping out a projected $800 million state budget deficit within two years.

The projected shortfalls are created largely by mandates to increase education spending, and rising health care costs. Ehrlich has ruled out tax increases, and the prospects of the state receiving a huge infusion of cash by legalizing slot machines look bleak.

"We're examining every process, every detail, every position in state government," DiPaula said. "It just requires a little more time to deal with it."

Lawmakers and legislative analysts say Ehrlich probably won't agree to many of the reductions under consideration because the state's fiscal forecast is improving and tax revenues are outpacing estimates. By keeping proposals secret, the administration can avoid the fallout from news of potential reductions, they say.

"They are sensitive to the cuts they are making and don't want to be criticized," House Speaker Michael E. Busch said.

Budget officers are preparing fiscal 2006 spending - expected to be about $24 billion - to take effect in July.

Withholding agency spending plans will delay the work of the General Assembly when it reviews the governor's budget, said Del. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., a Montgomery County Democrat and Appropriations Committee member who is a former legislative budget analyst.

"The unfortunate thing is, when we are talking about making a significant restructuring to state government and the spending priorities of the state, that should be something that is done together," Madaleno said.

Moreover, he said, it will exacerbate the political divisions between the Republican governor and a Democrat-controlled legislature.

"This is sort of the go-it-alone approach to this administration. Therefore, they take a huge gamble," Madaleno said. "If it works out for them, there is no one else they need to invite to the press conference, which seems to be their top priority."

The gag order was spelled out in a Sept. 10 memorandum by David A. Treasure, acting executive director of the state Office of Budget Analysis, to agency heads and chief financial officers. It was first reported yesterday by the Washington-area Gazette newspapers.

"This is to remind you that information about the FY 2006 budget request and the products of the Strategic Budget Analyses are subject to executive privilege and should only be shared with the governor or the Department of Budget and Management," the memo said, adding that no agency should submit its budget request to the legislature.

This isn't the first time the Ehrlich administration's budget decisions have rankled lawmakers.

In June last year, the administration said it was withholding 10 percent of agency budgets as a symbol of its willingness to make spending cuts. Bristling over what they deemed a usurping of their authority, lawmakers curtailed the governor's ability to withhold such allotments earlier this year.

Warren G. Deschenaux, the Assembly's top budget analyst, insisted that the delay in receiving information "is not going to impact our ability to do our work."

Under Maryland's budget process, lawmakers typically only make cuts to the budget submitted by the governor. If they add programs, they must also include a funding source, such as a new tax. Maryland's governor is considered to have the broadest budgeting authority of any state chief executive in the nation.

The Maryland Constitution does not require the governor to share early budget data with the legislative branch, Deschenaux said.

"They're afraid that one of our analysts is going to get excited and tell somebody something. We've never done that," he said. "If their agencies are truly doing difficult or wild and crazy things, maybe they have good reasons they don't want anybody to see it."

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