State Budget Unanimously Passes Through Senate

By Anjali Shastry

ANNAPOLIS (March 26, 2015) — Maryland Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller called the roll for the budget bill on Thursday, and 46 green dots appeared next to the names of the state senators. Senate members started wildly applauding, cheering and whistling as the 46-0 vote lit up the tally board, marking the official passage of the state budget through the chamber.

Maryland’s $40.7 billion state budget and its companion legislation reinstated about $62 million for supplemental education funding to 13 jurisdictions, about $60 million for state employee raises and about $45 million for Medicaid subsidies for physicians.

The Senate’s version modifies the budget they received from the House of Delegates, which had first crack at the budget this year.

Budget and Taxation Committee chair Senator Edward Kasemeyer, D-Baltimore and Howard, said the differences between the two budgets were very small.

“The differences are probably the same categories, they cut a little less or a little more than we did,” Kasemeyer said. “I think the main difference probably is that we provided $15 million for Prince George’s County Hospital, they didn’t include that at all.”

Gov. Larry Hogan in January proposed a budget that was lambasted by Democrats for being too harsh with spending cuts. Hogan, a Republican elected on a platform of reducing taxes and state spending, attempted to address a $700 million structural deficit in the state budget in one year.

Hogan’s budget proposal had rescinded a 2 percent cost of living raise given to state employees in January, and also slashed the supplemental public education budget—known as the Geographic Cost of Education Index—that Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, as well as Baltimore and 10 other jurisdictions, have grown reliant on.

The governor’s budget cut programs for social services, such as those for pregnant women and people with developmental disabilities, which also drew the Democrats’ ire. These were all reinstated to some degree in the latest version of the budget.

The new spending plan would address the structural deficit over two years in order to balance the budget but also pay for programs, said state Senator Richard Madaleno, D-Montgomery.

“We also wanted to try to deal with the long-term problem, and our goal was to deal with that over two years. So deal with at least 50 percent this year and the rest next year.”

The House Appropriations Committee voted to take about $70 million out of a $150 million planned pensions payment. They rummaged through the budget to cut what they could, finding up to $250 million total to redistribute. The Senate followed this plan.

However, the “bugaboo” for some Republicans was that a good portion of this money came from money designated for employee pensions, said state Senator Andrew Serafini, R-Washington, though he agreed that these kinds of fixes were still necessary.

Hogan said in a statement that he was concerned about how the Democratic-controlled General Assembly was reallocating money to cover the shortfall.

“As the budget process moves to conference committee, my administration will be seeking assurances from leadership in the legislature to ensure that pension funding will be addressed in a responsible way,” he said.

With a Republican in Government House after two terms under Democrat Gov. Martin O’Malley, GOP senators all supported the budget bill.

“This is the first year I’ve voted for the budget in nine years,” state Senator Bryan Simonaire, R-Anne Arundel said.

“In the past, it was recorded that one budget was baling wire and bubble gum because we were robbing and stealing from dedicated funds,” Serafini said. “It’s not a long-term successful strategy. We’re still having to do some of that, unfortunately.”

This budget accelerates the state’s plan to switch pension funding from a corridor plan to an actuarial system, which is approved by bond rating agencies and should help keep the state’s triple-A bond rating, said state Senator Douglas Peters, D-Prince George’s. The new plan for the pension fund is to put in a required payment recommended by the actuarial system, plus a supplemental payment of up to $75 million each year.

The Senate’s version of the budget also includes a 1.5 percent annual growth cap on education spending—not including the supplemental “GCEI” funding—until 2020.

The cap reflects the governor’s original budget, which increased education spending by about 1 percent.

“Education for K-12 is to grow at a certain formula,” Serafini said. “The governor didn’t cut spending, he just said we’re not going to grow as much.”

“(The House) didn’t put any caps in their growth, I believe,” Kasemeyer said.

Maryland’s reliance on federal government spending, which has been shrinking in recent years, means there will likely not be room for many tax cuts without significant program cuts in future years, Madaleno said.

“I think the governor will have a difficult time convincing the General Assembly to cut taxes because it will inevitably mean less for the priorities that we stand for, investments in education, infrastructure, better jobs, and a clean environment,” he said.

“The recovery is very clear. But it doesn’t feel that way to a lot of people,” said state Senator Roger Manno, D-Montgomery.

Manno said that the economy was growing and the structural deficit was manageable.

“Reserve judgment until April 13th, but so far, it looks like we’ve restored K-12 and our pensions are still solvent,” Manno said. “We’re doing very well, but a lot can happen in the next three weeks.”

State Senator James Mathias Jr., D-Somerset, Wicomico and Worcester, was not present to vote.

Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller Jr., D-Calvert, Charles and Prince George’s, said that while the committees had voted to fund their agendas, the governor still had to approve it. He encouraged the legislature to have a good working relationship with the executive branch.

“He can eliminate them, you see. But there’s an understanding also from the governor that we’re going to look at his agenda and move some of his agenda forward,” Miller said.

On Thursday, state Senator Justin Ready, R-Carroll, proposed an amendment to the budget that would allow parents to opt their children out of participating in state-mandated PARCC tests, both in an effort to save money and to fight the Common Core, a national educational standard, which he said he disagrees with. This amendment was voted down, with Ready agreeing to talk to the Maryland State Department of Education about producing reports on the effectiveness of PARCC.

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