2007-08 BUDGET

O'Malley 'Conservative' In '08 Budget Proposal

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 19, 2007

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley yesterday proposed freezing tuition at public universities and spending a record amount on public school construction next year but recommended that the state hold off on a plan that could send tens of millions of additional education dollars to Prince George's and Montgomery counties.

The highlights of the new governor's first budget proposal were shared with lawmakers and the media the day before O'Malley (D) is to submit a $30 billion spending plan to the General Assembly that contains few new initiatives and draws nearly $1 billion from a state reserve fund to achieve balance.

With deficits projected in future years, O'Malley repeatedly called his proposal "conservative" during an afternoon news conference and stressed that overall state spending would grow by only about 2.5 percent next year, a smaller figure than in nine of the past 10 years. Spending grew by 12 percent in the last budget of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R).

"In short, we are funding our priorities," O'Malley said, "but not everything we want to do is going to be possible this year."

O'Malley, who was sworn in Wednesday, also confirmed that his fiscal 2007-08 budget will contain no tax increases. That will leave more difficult choices for the following year, he said, when legislative analysts project a $1.3 billion budget gap.

Although some lawmakers have advocated tackling that problem sooner, Del. Norman H. Conway, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said that O'Malley is taking a prudent course by giving himself a year to scour the budget for savings.

"I'm very pleased with the approach he's taking," said Conway (D-Wicomico). "He's being very deliberative."

O'Malley inherited a shortfall of about $400 million in next year's budget, which he and aides closed through a variety of spending cuts.

One cut that attracted some attention yesterday was the deferral of a planned $53 million budget transfer earmarked for the intercounty connector, a long-delayed highway project that would run through Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

O'Malley aides said the deferral should have no impact on the $2.4 billion project, however, because transportation officials do not yet need the cash for early stages of the project, which include buying property in the 18-mile highway's path and doing advanced engineering work.

"The project is moving ahead full speed," said John D. Porcari, O'Malley's nominee for transportation secretary. "There's no change in the commitment to the ICC. . . . This is simply a financial adjustment common for a large project."

The deferral caught Montgomery officials off guard yesterday, but County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) said he was convinced that the decision "doesn't change anything" about the overall status of the project.

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