Ehrlich decries cuts

Governor criticizes recommendation to trim $35 million in public safety

General Assembly

March 01, 2006|By GREG GARLAND | GREG GARLAND,SUN REPORTER

With dozens of uniformed correctional officers providing a backdrop, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. called on the General Assembly yesterday to reject recommendations to cut $35 million from his proposed budget for prisons, inmate rehabilitation and juvenile services.

"Public safety is a target in Annapolis as we speak," Ehrlich said during a news conference at a state-run prison in downtown Baltimore. He urged correctional officers to lobby legislators to reject budget cuts recommended by legislative budget analysts.

But legislative leaders said no decisions on budget cuts have been made and accused Ehrlich of playing politics with the issue.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said the Ehrlich administration has yet to speak to him, House Speaker Michael E. Busch or other legislative leaders about his budget concerns.

"It's government by press conference," Miller said. "Instead of speaking to the press, he should speak to the General Assembly and advise us why the nonpartisan staff analysts' recommendations are erroneous."

The governor plans to hold another event today to talk about other cuts legislative analysts have recommended to health programs for the mentally ill and disabled.

The events illustrate Ehrlich's election-year strategy of pushing his agenda through news media appearances. They also represent a shift in the traditional way that spending disputes are resolved in Annapolis.

For decades, the governor's staff would share the executive's budget with legislative staffers before the start of the annual Assembly session, and differences would be worked out in private meetings in the subsequent weeks. But last year, Ehrlich refused to show lawmakers his spending plan ahead of its release, angering legislative leaders.

This year, before the start of the Assembly session, the governor held daily announcements to proclaim "record" funding increases for public education, universities and other areas.

Lawmakers want to cut $100 million from the governor's $29.6 billion proposal to meet a self-imposed estimate of what the state can afford and say they are not singling out public safety.

Yesterday's news conference was the second in as many weeks at which Ehrlich has sought to show his support for correctional officers, many of whom have been sharply critical of his administration's policies. They have complained for months about staff shortages that they say threaten their safety.

The budget that Ehrlich has proposed includes 6 percent raises, retroactive to Jan. 1, for most state correctional workers in addition to a 2 percent cost-of-living raise that all state workers would receive effective July 1.

He has said those steps are necessary to attract more people to fill vacant positions in the prisons and keep others from leaving for other jobs.

But budget analysts have recommended that legislators reject the unprecedented proposal of making the raises retroactive, a suggested cut that would save $15.5 million.

They also have suggested cutting other costs, including money to expand an inmate rehabilitation program known as Project RESTART and funds to renovate some facilities for juvenile offenders.

Ehrlich said there should be no argument about the need to make funding of public safety the state's top priority. He said he has heard no rationale from legislative leaders for the proposed cuts.

"We want to put the money in Job 1, and Job 1 is public safety," he said.

Sen. James E. DeGrange Sr., an Anne Arundel County Democrat who heads a legislative subcommittee that oversees the public safety department, said Ehrlich seems more interested in scoring political points than in making government work.

"It's all about campaigning and not about dealing with budget issues or managing government," DeGrange said. "They are only 100 feet away from the Senate building. They might want to come over and talk to us. It annoys me that we have press conferences instead of budget discussions."

Del. Joan Cadden, chairwoman of a House oversight committee, said the budget process is in the early stages, and no decisions have been made on budget cuts.

"It's blatantly political," said Cadden, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, referring to Ehrlich's remarks. "I haven't seen anything like this in the 11 years I've been on the appropriations committee."

After the news conference, Paul E. Schurick, the governor's communications director, said legislative leadership is behind the proposed public safety cuts. He dismissed the idea that legislative analysts are nonpartisan and independent.

"They do what they are told by the leadership," Schurick said.

Warren Deschenaux, director of the Office of Policy Analysis for the General Assembly, said analysts "do not take instructions from leadership" and have handled the latest budget proposal no differently than they have in past years.

Cuts are needed, he said, because Ehrlich submitted a budget that exceeds the recommendation of the state Spending Affordability Committee by $100 million and because of projected shortfalls in future years.

Deschenaux said the public safety cutbacks are part of $285 million in reductions that analysts have recommended to the governor's budget.

"I do not think that is evidence of targeting anyone," he said. "Rather we are looking at everyone. To the best of my knowledge the search for economical, effective and sustainable government is not a partisan matter."

Miller also defended the work of the budget analysts.

"This is our nonpartisan staff analysts," Miller said. "Analysts who are ... not Republicans or Democrats. They are precluded from participating in partisan politics in any way, shape or form, in making an independent analysis of what the budget is all about."

greg.garland@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Andrew A. Green contributed to this article.

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