O'malley Against Zoo, Social Services Cuts

Governor Rejects Slashing Their Budgets As Part Of $470 Million In Reductions Expected This Week

August 23, 2009|By Laura Smitherman | Laura Smitherman,laura.smitherman@baltsun.com

As Gov. Martin O'Malley prepares to announce $470 million in budget cuts this week, he has rejected proposals to severely slash funding for the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore and the Baltimore City Department of Social Services.

The Democratic governor and former Baltimore mayor has been weighing recommendations for closing a projected shortfall in the fiscal year that began last month. In recent days, he and administration officials have been poring over options for line-item reductions to balance the $13 billion state operating budget.

The cuts will affect state agencies and state employees, who are expected to be furloughed, and about $250 million of the cutbacks will be made in aid to local governments. The specific budget cuts will be released early this week, and the three-member Board of Public Works that includes O'Malley, Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp and Comptroller Peter Franchot plan to vote on the package of cuts on Wednesday.

But some details have emerged, including what O'Malley has decided not to do.

He rejected a proposal to carve $600,000 from state funding for the social services department in Baltimore. While federal funding provides much of the agency's budget, state dollars support job training, emergency financial aid to poor families and services for foster children, said Molly McGrath, director of the department.

The governor reasoned that cutting off services to vulnerable populations could lead to an increase in other social ills, such as crime or infant mortality, spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said.

O'Malley also spared the zoo from a proposed $150,000 budget cut. Abbruzzese said that cultural and tourist attractions have been hit by the recession that's left families with less disposable income for entertainment. He also noted that the zoo has been struggling to remain profitable.

The budget cut "would have been devastating," said Terry Slade Young, executive vice president for institutional advancement. She added that the zoo operates on an $11 million budget that's about $5 million short of what's needed to raise salaries to reduce turnover and upgrade computers and other technology.

O'Malley, under fire from Republicans who say he should have reduced spending earlier and foregone funding increases for health care and other programs, has been trying to explain the budgetary choices he's making to the public.

He also plans to phone local officials to prepare them for the anticipated hit to their bottom lines, which could affect local health offices, police departments, community colleges and road improvement projects. And he plans to brief General Assembly leaders.

The governor may have grown weary of the economic downturn that has undercut tax collections. (He said recently: "It's been a long recession. I'm getting tired of it.") But he won't be done cutting the budget even after this round of cutbacks. Depending on how many of his reductions are permanent, the state faces a shortfall of about $1.5 billion next year.

And it's not clear that even the current fiscal year will remain in balance. Warren G. Deschenaux, the legislature's chief fiscal analyst, said at a recent briefing that the cutbacks "may be sufficient, or they may not be." State officials will know more when updated financial projections are released next month.

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