House offers specific budget cuts for O'Malley

Negotiations to begin in Senate over $500 million in reductions

GENERAL ASSEMBLY special session

November 14, 2007|By Bradley Olson | Bradley Olson,Sun reporter

The House of Delegates recommended yesterday $500 million in specific spending cuts for Gov. Martin O'Malley's next budget, paving the way for negotiations later this week with the state Senate, which recommended the same amount of cuts but left the details to the governor.

Although the measure passed by a vote of 103-36, some lawmakers questioned the necessity of recommending the cuts when, by Maryland law, the governor has responsibility for developing the state budget. O'Malley will release his budget in January, and lawmakers can then make spending cuts.

But Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the minority leader from Southern Maryland, noted that O'Malley could completely ignore the House's current suggestions for cutting spending growth.

"We can't do anything to his budget," O'Donnell said. "He hasn't presented it to us yet."

Del. Norman H. Conway, an Eastern Shore Democrat who chairs the committee that reviewed the potential cuts and forwarded the spending bill to the full House on Monday, said he felt "very strongly" that O'Malley would heed their suggestions.

"We will be looking at his budget in just a few short weeks," he said on the House floor. "We have on record what our recommendations have been in cutting increases and taking a strong look at other things that we will do and how it will impact on that baseline budget. ... I am proud to recommend what we [the committee] have done ... and ask for your support."

The proposed cuts represent one piece of the General Assembly's plan to close a $1.7 billion budget deficit for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

They include reductions of inflation increases under the Thornton education plan, which would save $150 million; using $77 million in surplus money from a health insurance fund for state employees and retirees; and eliminating 750 open jobs, reaping a savings of $15 million. A fraction of the spending reductions represent actual cuts by eliminating programs or changing funding formulas through legislation.

The savings estimates were made by the nonpartisan Department of Legislative Services.

The vote went largely along party lines, with Democrats voting for the package of spending cuts and Republicans against, although five delegates crossed party lines. Republicans Ron George and Steve Schuh of Anne Arundel County and Susan L.M. Aumann of Baltimore County supported it, while Democrats Frank M. Conaway Jr. of Baltimore City and Kevin Kelly of Allegany County opposed the measure.

"There's a lot that's in here that's just moving expenses from one year to the next," said Del. Gail H. Bates, a Howard County Republican who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, adding that she believed they were just "kicking the can down the road. We're not solving the long-term structural deficit; we are closing a current gap."

Christine Hansen, a spokeswoman for O'Malley, said the governor "is committed to working with the General Assembly" and that he will wait for the budget-cut package that ultimately passes in both chambers. She declined to say how closely he would heed the House's specific suggestions, but added that O'Malley had already cut hundreds of millions in state spending and proposed reducing budget growth by $1 billion over the next two years.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, who had set the $500 million benchmark for the cuts, praised the committee for going ahead with the spending reduction suggestions despite the potential political costs, such as "negative feedback" from special interests who might lose government funding.

"The Appropriations Committee in my estimation did a very thorough job of making recommendations of what cuts the governor should make in next year's budget," he said. "I think it takes a lot of courage to do that."

With little fanfare, the House also completed yesterday the first legislative override of an O'Malley veto. Such overrides became common under former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., but were all but unheard of among his Democratic predecessors.

The veto override enters into law a bill passed unanimously last session by both the Senate and House that allows police departments to sell unneeded or outdated guns to manufacturers. State law required police departments either to sell unneeded weapons in their inventories to other law enforcement agencies or destroy them.

O'Malley defended the veto by saying that he didn't want police weapons to be available outside the law enforcement community.

bradley.olson@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Andrew A. Green contributed to this article.

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