State orders budget trims

Md. panel OKs $50 million in cuts

nearly all agencies hit

June 26, 2008|By Laura Smitherman | Laura Smitherman,Sun reporter

Maryland officials voted yesterday to cut the state's budget by $50 million, a move that affected nearly every state agency and included reductions in aid to private universities and funding for cancer research.

The General Assembly ordered the spending cuts during the spring legislative session to make up for revenue lost by the repeal of a tax on computer services. But officials warned that yesterday's action by the Board of Public Works could be a harbinger of more belt-tightening in the coming months if the national economy continues to stall.

"With the status of the economy, it is a possibility that additional spending cuts could be forthcoming," said Budget Secretary T. Eloise Foster.

Nearly $1.9 billion has been trimmed from the state's budget over the past year and a half in the face of the weak economy and a long-term imbalance between revenues and expenditures, according to Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration.

Although yesterday's budget trimming was much smaller than in previous rounds, it sparked a lengthy debate over the process used to identify the cuts and whether the reductions were fair or too severe. The total impact of the cuts on the state will amount to $75 million because Maryland will lose some federal matching funds.

Comptroller Peter Franchot, who sits on the board with O'Malley and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, complained that he did not see the list of spending cuts until an hour before the meeting. He characterized the process as "not transparent and not subject to rigorous review."

"We are essentially going to rubber stamp this," Franchot said.

Foster, a member of O'Malley's Cabinet, said she consulted agencies in asking for proposed cuts before the administration compiled the final list. She said she sought a meeting with the comptroller. The legislature directed the governor to present the spending cuts to the board by July 1.

Franchot, who frequently clashes with O'Malley, countered that he was in San Diego for a conference when he had a brief conversation with Foster last week, and that she could have faxed or e-mailed the list of cuts. Nonetheless, Franchot ended up voting for the spending cuts with O'Malley and Kopp, saying it was the responsible action to take.

Among the cuts was the elimination of 11 vacant jobs, bringing the total positions abolished during O'Malley's administration to more than 730. Many agencies are slowing the pace of hiring or continuing hiring freezes. Others are reducing operating costs; the governor's office plans to reduce spending by $50,000 that way.

Targeted cuts include reducing state aid to nonpublic institutions of higher education such as the Johns Hopkins University and Loyola College by $2.5 million. The reduction brings the funding down to $56 million, the same as in fiscal 2009."I really don't think this is too much to ask," O'Malley said.

Tina M. Bjarekull, president of the Maryland Independent College and University Association, a group of 18 private colleges and universities, objected at yesterday's meeting, saying that the funding is primarily used to provide need-based financial aid to students from Maryland. Franchot said private schools were taking a bigger budget hit than Maryland's public university system, where tuition has been frozen for several years.

The board also voted to reduce funding for cancer research by academic health centers and for tobacco-cessation and prevention programs by local heath departments. The funds come from the so-called cigarette restitution fund, a repository of settlement money received from a multistate lawsuit against the tobacco industry.

Maryland Health Secretary John M. Colmers said the budget cuts represented the "least offensive" of the proposals and that the spending reductions would not prevent the department from carrying out its core mission of protecting the public health.

The budget debate is sure to continue. O'Malley, a Democrat, has said repeatedly that members of the General Assembly "bit the bullet" by approving budget-balancing measures that raised taxes by $1.3 billion along with the spending cuts. Then the legislature returned this year to repeal one of those levies, the sales tax on computer services, which left a $200 million gap in the budget they closed by increasing other taxes and requiring new cuts.

O'Malley, who has seen his approval ratings dip in the wake of the tax increases, has said the government needs to do a better job of demonstrating how tax dollars are spent.

"The legislature gets whipped and criticized, and people don't see at the local level the return," the governor said yesterday.


Yesterday the Board of Public Works voted to cut:

* 11 vacant state jobs

* $2.5 million from aid to private colleges

* $6.2 million from cancer research and smoking- cessation programs

* $3.6 million through hiring freeze at the Department of Human Resources

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.