Md. House debates budget blueprint

Maryland residents would pay more when they purchase cars, order personalized license plates and file land records after property changes hands under a budget blueprint debated Wednesday in the House of Delegates that would partially restore funding for public schools and require state employees to contribute more to their retirement plans.

Democratic lawmakers, who control the House, portrayed the $14.6 billion spending plan as a fiscally prudent and socially responsible approach to closing an estimated $1.6 billion shortfall. Republicans characterized the proposal as not going far enough to address Maryland’s budget mismatch between spending and revenue.

“It’s time for us to be fiscally responsible and to make some tough decisions,” said Republican Whip Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio (R-Talbot), pointing to general-fund spending that would rise by $1.4 billion, or 10.6 percent, in fiscal 2012.

But Democratic budget writers attributed the increase to efforts to make up for the loss of federal stimulus dollars and to protect the state’s investment in public education. The House budget plan shrinks the so-called structural deficit by about 40 percent, according to legislative analysts.

“We’ve taken a big bite out of future structural deficits. You have to look at the big picture,” said Del. John L. Bohanan Jr. (D-St. Mary’s), who serves on the Appropriations Committee.

Democrats fought off a series of GOP-backed amendments designed to more aggressively rein in spending, and to highlight philosophical differences on social issues such as abortion. The House version of the budget plan advanced late Wednesday, all but guaranteeing final passage as early as Thursday.

Lawmakers defeated an amendment, for example, that would have capped executive-branch salaries at the $150,000 that the governor receives. Opponents argued that the measure would lead to the loss of some talented personnel, including university researchers who bring in far more in research grants than they are paid.

The House will have to pass the budget first, but there are already signs that the Senate will take a different approach to addressing the budget gap. A bill introduced in the Senate this week, with the backing of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), would increase the sales tax on alcohol from 6 percent to 9 percent, eventually raising about $85 million a year by 2014.

Miller also is pressing for more sweeping changes to the pension system that would shift a larger portion of teacher retirement costs to the counties.

The House debate Wednesday night touched on the question of whether the blueprint does too much or too little to overhaul Maryland’s costly retiree health-care and pension system.

Maryland’s pension plan has fallen from almost 90 percent funded to a projected 59 percent funded in 2012, mostly because of poor returns on investments during the recession.

The House plan, like the one proposed by Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) in January, preserves the state’s guaranteed retirement benefit for employees and gives workers a $750 bonus.

Lawmakers rejected a GOP-backed amendment Wednesday that would have canceled bonuses, with opponents saying that workers deserved them given the furloughs they have endured in recent years.

State employees would contribute more of their salary toward retirement — from 5 percent to 7 percent — but the House plan eliminates an element of O’Malley’s proposal that would set up a less generous option for employees who want to continue making the same contribution.

When it comes to health-care costs, the House significantly scaled back the governor’s plan, allowing retirees to pay less for prescription drugs than O’Malley recommended. A proposed annual cap on drugs of $4,550 would be lowered to $1,000, compared with the current cap of $700.

The House version of the spending plan closes the budget gap without raising broad-based taxes, but Republican legislators Wednesday pointed to a series of fee increases included in the plan.

Maryland residents would pay $100 instead of $50 for a title when they purchase a vehicle, and the price of a vanity plate would increase from $25 to $50. Marylanders would also pay more — $40 instead of $20 — to file land records when property changes hands.

In a lighter moment in what was at times a heated debate, Bohanan joked that some of the fee increases were optional: Residents, he said, would only encounter the vanity plate increase “if you think it’s very important to ride down the road with a ‘HOT MAMA’ plate.”

Other amendments debated Wednesday night underscored differences between the two parties. Republicans sought to use the debate to wade into the issue of whether illegal immigrants who graduate from Maryland high schools should qualify for in-state tuition breaks. Legislators rejected an amendment aimed at Montgomery College that would have eliminated some funding for community colleges that knowingly allow illegal immigrants to pay the lower in-county tuition rate. Montgomery College offers in-county rates to students who have graduated from county high schools, regardless of immigration status.

The House also rejected a provision that would have restricted spending of state Medicaid dollars on abortions.

Opponents of the measure said it would discriminate against poor women who cannot afford the procedure and receive health insurance through Medicaid.

Staff writer Aaron C. Davis contributed to this report.

 
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