The Maryland House of Delegates has rejected a plan to begin shifting part of the cost of teacher pensions to local governments - one of several ways in which it wants to dial back spending cuts proposed by the Senate, though delegates offered alternative snips.
The House gave preliminary approval to the state's $13.2 billion general fund spending plan and budget-balancing bill on Tuesday and is set to debate further today. The two chambers must reconcile their differences before the legislative session ends in just over a week.
"The budget came in very lean, and there was not a lot to go through and reduce," said Del. John L. Bohanan Jr., a St. Mary's County Democrat who is on the Appropriations Committee. The General Assembly has been working through Gov. Martin O'Malley's budget, which except for federal stimulus money called for no growth. The Democratic governor also used one-time fund transfers to balance the budget.
Tight finances didn't stop delegates from debating the budget for about six hours, with Republicans pushing amendments that they say would have better addressed the state's structural deficit. All were rejected, including a measure by Del. Christopher B. Shank of Washington County, a minority leader, that would have added language to the budget stating that the General Assembly would not raise any taxes over the next four years.
Small sums at stake
The differences between the House and Senate spending plans involve relatively small amounts of money. For example, the House called for the elimination of $11 million in scholarships that the 188 lawmakers dole out annually. That money would be shifted to scholarships now administered by the Maryland Higher Education Commission.
Delegates restricted even more money to the University of Maryland law school clinics than senators proposed, until they receive information about the clinics' clients. The House wants to withhold $500,000 in funds, compared with the Senate's $250,000.
The constraint came after lawmakers expressed outrage that the school's environmental law clinic is representing groups that accuse poultry giant Perdue Farms and a small Eastern Shore farmer of pollution on the Eastern Shore. Some lawmakers, Del. Doyle L. Niemann, a Prince George's County Democrat, promised to attempt to strip the funding restriction altogether during Friday's debate.
Delegates want the state to pay for $12 million in stem cell research, while senators would cut about half of that. The House also proposed leaving $15 million in a fund meant to improve Chesapeake Bay water quality, while the Senate allotted for $10 million in that area.
Another $2.5 million
The House chiseled away at other budget items - everything from court system expenses to state agency electricity costs - that, all told, go about $2.5 million farther than the Senate in budget reductions. The Senate, in turn, reduced the governor's budget by $9.3 million.
The biggest difference between the chambers' approach to spending appears to be in teacher pensions, which the state pays for at a cost of almost $1 billion in the coming year.
The Senate wants to shift a portion of the pension payment to local governments, beginning in 2012. It would save the state about $63 million in the first year and $330 million two years later. But the House of Delegates has stripped out that language, saying it wanted to study the issue more before acting.