GOP lawmakers offer 2 plans for budget cuts

Proposals target education, government, health care

Democrats react positively

February 23, 2010|By Annie Linskey | Baltimore Sun reporter

State Republican lawmakers recommended deep cuts to education, state government and local aid Tuesday afternoon at a rare joint Senate and House hearing called by Democratic leaders to blunt criticism that they had excluded the minority party from the budget process.

The exercise blended election year partisanship with an earnest effort by some members to trim fat from the state's $13 billion general fund budget for next year.

It also revealed the challenges all lawmakers face when dealing with plummeting revenues: The GOP offered two plans and both rely on federal stimulus dollars and one fails to specify how spending reductions would be maintained beyond the current year.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch called the hearing "beneficial" and described it as an "honest effort" by Republicans to identify cuts. "It shows how tough it is," he said. Del. Murray Levy, a Democrat on the appropriations committee, called the Republican plans "credible" and "well crafted." Busch said that some of their ideas likely will be incorporated in the final spending plan, but declined to specify which ones.

First to present a budget proposal was House minority leader Anthony J. O'Donnell who called his caucus' plan "tough medicine." He walked his colleagues through a proposal that would fire 500 state employees and 1,000 university-level educators, recalculate the way K-12 education is funded and keep closer tabs on Medicare costs. He said his plan would save $829.63 million.

In a separate proposal, Republican Senators David Brinkley and Edward J. Pipkin said the state could save $1 billion by shifting half the cost of teacher pensions to the local jurisdictions, increasing state employee contributions to their own pensions and enforcing a requirement that the state collect fifty percent of public transportation money from user fares.

The largest portion of their savings comes from the first idea, which has been frequently discussed in Annapolis. Shifting half the burden of teacher pensions would save the state $450 million -- but could bust the budgets of counties already struggling with smaller tax revenues.

Gov. Martin O'Malley has resisted that move and uses federal stimulus funds to pay for part of the cost in his budget proposal. But next year, when those funds disappear, Busch said there would be "a more serious discussion" on shifting teacher pensions.

The Brinkley-Pipkin plan was by far the more detailed proposal because it showed how spending would be reduced over four years. The senators introduced their proposal as legislation, which means it has a greater chance of being more thoroughly vetted and considered by lawmakers.

Both Republican plans eliminate a teacher pay hike used to lure educators into accepting assignments in high crime areas or help them live near schools with a steep living costs, a move that would hurt the Democratic strongholds of Baltimore City, Montgomery County and Prince George's County. The House GOP plan takes away $100 million worth of transportation funding for Baltimore, a pot of money state lawmakers frequently discuss raiding.

The House GOP plan also cuts programs distasteful to social conservatives: It bars state funds for abortions and reduces funding for stem cell research.

But the same plan includes federal stimulus funds, which many in the GOP find toxic -- just last month, O'Donnell called on O'Malley to refund stimulus money. When questioned about his change in position, he said that the federal funds are "cooked into the budget. There is no way to take them out of the budget. I'm at a loss of what to do."

Democratic leaders called the hearing after partisan sniping that started in January when some Republicans claimed they were shut out of back room budget discussions. Democrats contend no such discussions take place, but asked the GOP to present their ideas at a joint hearing.

The planning was awkward at best. The Senate GOP caucus flatly refused to participate, causing Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller to open the forum to all senators. The printed agenda Tuesday showed that the Senate GOP would make a presentation, though top Senate Republican Allan H. Kittleman never planned to participate in what he called "as a pure political stunt."

The House Republicans demanded that both presiding officers attend the meeting, a request that was granted. Unfazed by the hearing was fiscal analyst Warren Deschenaux. "It was pretty much what I was expecting," he said. "There's not too much that is new under the sun."

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