O'Malley Offers Skinnier Budget

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley said his $15.2 billion operating budget plan is
Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley said his $15.2 billion operating budget plan is "fiscally responsible," given the state's uncertain economic outlook. (By Rob Carr -- Associated Press)
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By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 17, 2008

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) proposed a budget yesterday that would cut $552 million in planned spending and eliminate 500 state jobs but allow funding for a relatively modest number of new initiatives as well as capital projects such as the Purple Line, a proposed transit link in the Washington area.

O'Malley, speaking at a news conference, called his $15.2 billion operating budget "fiscally responsible." He said it would restrain spending after a special session last fall in which lawmakers passed $1.4 billion a year in tax increases to help fix the state's long-festering financial problems.

O'Malley's budget for the fiscal year that starts in July would pay for several crime-related initiatives, such as the expansion of a state DNA database and more aggressive monitoring of juvenile offenders. It also includes programs to improve poor children's access to dentists and money to pay for an optical-scan voting system that will provide a voter-verifiable paper trail.

But much of the new spending in the operating budget is the result of actions taken during November's special session, including nearly $125 million to implement legislation expanding subsidized health-care coverage and $50 million for a trust to be used for cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay.

In separate capital and transportation budgets released yesterday, O'Malley included $333 million for public school construction statewide and $100 million for engineering and design of the Purple Line, a proposed light-rail or rapid-bus link between Metro stops in Bethesda and New Carrollton. Washington area lawmakers cheered the announcement of Purple Line funding at a midday pep rally outside the State House in Annapolis.

Democratic leaders said they were mostly pleased with O'Malley's proposals, which meet a legislative directive from the special session to cut at least $550 million in spending. With the state's economic outlook uncertain, they pledged to look for additional cuts during the current 90-day session, which ends in April.

Republicans, many of whom said they were unimpressed with O'Malley's efforts to slow spending, said they would push for more significant reductions.

"It's still too high," said House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell (R-Calvert). "This administration doesn't seem to have gotten the message that we have a spending problem."

O'Malley's proposed budget also reflects action taken during the special session to slow planned growth in K-12 education funding next year by nearly $190 million, although statewide spending would still increase by $184 million over this year. That includes $75.8 million for a formula that would provide additional funding to jurisdictions where the cost of education is deemed more expensive, including Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

Although Montgomery County would benefit from that initiative, county leaders say they could also lose $19 million in anticipated state education funding as the result of a formula change that takes into account jurisdictions' relative wealth.

The 500 vacant jobs that the governor proposes to cut span 27 state agencies, with the largest share, 143, in the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which has about 7,000 employees. Other vacancies that would become permanent include 96 at the Department of Transportation, 90 at the Department of Human Resources and 24 at the Department of Education.

Administration officials said yesterday that some of O'Malley's proposed spending reductions would not be felt by the public. He has proposed a $68 million cut in Medicaid funding, for example, that is possible because fewer people than projected are enrolling in the state's health insurance program for the poor, said John M. Colmers, health department secretary.

"Nobody's getting cut from services," Colmers said. "We feel this just makes sense."

Other proposed measures would freeze next year's funding at current levels. That includes eliminating an anticipated $8 million increase in the state's infant and toddlers program, which provides intervention services, and the elimination of an expected $6 million increase in state aid to private colleges and universities.

Del. Norman H. Conway (D-Wicomico), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said that O'Malley offered a solid budget but that his panel would probably look for additional reductions. During the special session, delegates developed a list of potential cuts, not all of which were reflected in the governor's proposal.

"I think the governor has taken a number of steps on spending restraint, and at the same time, he's focused on some key areas of need," Conway said.

The inclusion of funds for the engineering and design of the Purple Line was the focus of attention yesterday of many Montgomery and Prince George's lawmakers, who celebrated at a news conference outside the State House.

Lawmakers -- chanting "P-U-R-P-L-E! O'Malley!" -- applauded the allocation, saying that the eventual construction of the line will help cut traffic congestion in Washington's suburbs.

"We know that the Purple Line would be good for our environment, our economy and our quality of life," said Del. William A. Bronrott (D-Montgomery).

Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari called the Purple Line the "transit beltway," connecting Montgomery and Prince George's. The $100 million to fund the next phase of the project will help Maryland procure federal dollars for it in the future, Porcari said.

"It shows the federal government that we are really serious about this project," Porcari said.

Staff writers Ann E. Marimow and Philip Rucker contributed to this report.

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