"We're not a AAA state for nothing," Kasemeyer said, referring to Maryland's bond ratings. "It's because there's been some discipline. You see other states make commitments that they have to go back on because they couldn't afford to do them."
All three major bond rating agencies - Fitch Ratings, Moody's and Standard & Poor's - reaffirmed Maryland's AAA bond rating last month, but all three expressed concern about future state spending.
In particular, analysts noted that the requirements of an education funding program (known as the Bridge to Excellence in Education Act, developed by a panel led by former Prince George's County school board Chairman Alvin Thornton) and increases in Medicaid costs will make future budget balancing more difficult.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said Ehrlich was better about adhering to the guidelines in his first three years in office, but this year, the impending election changed everything. Now he's using his budget to court key constituencies, Miller said.
"Electoral politics is the rule of the day," Miller said. "It's whatever assists in terms of votes, special interest voting blocs, cutting into the other side's base."
Budget politics took center stage last week. Ehrlich aggressively courted public opinion to support his budget priorities by highlighting items that nonpartisan legislative analysts had suggested to the Assembly as potential cuts.
He made plain the connections between the line items in his budget and the political constituencies they benefit. He surrounded himself with corrections officers at an event protesting proposed cuts to his public safety budget, and with people in wheelchairs to discuss disabilities funding.
On Friday, talking about his environmental budget at a yacht club overlooking the Chesapeake Bay in Annapolis, he declared that the conditions that made spending affordability a key issue for Republicans when he was elected to the legislature 20 years ago no longer apply.
Much of state spending is now automatic - the so-called Thornton education plan and Medicaid eat up most of the spending affordability limit, he said. And he said he has confidence in his department heads to spend the money wisely because many come from private-sector backgrounds.
"It's a different game, it's a different day, it's a different paradigm in terms of Maryland politics," he said.
But legislators appear unlikely to let go of the spending affordability concept so easily. They say Ehrlich's proposed budget would establish spending benchmarks that could be unsustainable.
"It's served us well in the state of Maryland," Miller said of the spending affordability limit. "We adhered to it with William Donald Schaefer. We adhered to it with Parris Glendening, and we're certainly going to adhere to it with Bob Ehrlich."