The Maryland Senate cut more than $200 million from Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s $29 billion budget proposal yesterday, trimming spending the executive had tried to protect for corrections officers' raises, need-based scholarships and some Chesapeake Bay restoration programs.
The Democratic leaders of the Senate's Budget and Taxation Committee, which has spent weeks poring over Ehrlich's proposal, said the governor's budget needed to be trimmed to prevent state spending from growing faster than the economy.
According to the latest recommendation of the state's Spending Affordability Committee, a group of legislators and business leaders, Ehrlich's budget exceeded what economic growth would justify by about $100 million.
"This was a fiscally irresponsible budget to come in $100 million over spending affordability," said Sen. Patrick J. Hogan, a Montgomery County Democrat. "Our job was to go through the budget, make reductions where fiscal responsibility required, do as little harm as possible."
Ehrlich launched an unusual public lobbying campaign while the Senate was considering his budget in an effort to stave off cuts to his top priorities. He staged news events to oppose cuts suggested by the General Assembly's nonpartisan fiscal analysts.
As is generally the case, the Senate accepted some of the analysts' suggestions and rejected others.
The largest reductions yesterday came from cutting about $64 million in funds for employee health care. Senators said the administration had budgeted more than was necessary. Other large cuts included $15 million earmarked for raising corrections officers' salaries retroactive to Jan. 1; $10 million in purse enhancements for the horse racing industry; $10 million for stem cell research; and $5 million for need-based scholarships.
Democrats said retroactive pay raises would be unprecedented, but Republicans fought to keep them, saying the retroactive increase was necessary to boost morale and improve retention.
"You say it's unprecedented," said Sen. John J. Hafer, a Western Maryland Republican. "So are the conditions going on in the prisons."
For years, Annapolis Republicans railed against Democratic governors as free spenders, but in an unusual twist this year, they found themselves trying to defend Ehrlich's spending proposals from Democratic cuts. Sen. Andrew P. Harris, for example, stood to argue against cuts to an environmental protection program.
Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese N. DeLeaver said the governor is disappointed by the cuts. "The Senate has made deep cuts that will certainly have a negative impact on Maryland students, public safety, progress in stem cell research and the health of our environment," DeLeaver said. "The governor will continue to work with the House so the same mistakes aren't made twice."
Democrats said most of the cuts are reductions to increases in spending on state programs. The $5 million cut to need-based aid, for example, would still allow a 20 percent increase over last year's level. Few programs would be funded at a lower level than in previous years.
The Senate is likely to take a final vote on its version of the budget this week. The House of Delegates has yet to take up the measure.