Midyear Trims Made In Md.

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 16, 2008

A Maryland panel approved nearly $350 million in midyear cuts yesterday to a wide range of state programs, including some that serve elderly and disabled people, and scaled back recent funding increases for public universities and community colleges.

The actions, proposed by Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) in response to the economic downturn, also eliminated 833 mostly vacant state jobs, including 100 positions for correctional officers and 181 jobs in the state health department.

It was the first of several rounds of cuts that are expected to increasingly pinch state services in coming months, and not all of the consequences were immediately clear. University officials said they would absorb a cut without raising tuition, but an increase was not ruled out at community colleges.

O'Malley said the actions, approved unanimously by the three-member Board of Public Works, were "not easy." But the governor and affected constituencies acknowledged that more difficult choices are ahead, given a bigger shortfall forecast next year and the grave economic situation.

"We're just holding our breaths at this point that this is it," said Adele Wilzack, president of the Health Facilities Association of Maryland, which represents more than 225 nursing homes.

Yesterday's budget actions included a reduction in state payments to nursing homes that Wilzack said would amount to about $6 a day per patient. For now, she said, facilities could probably offset the cuts through reductions in housekeeping and food services rather than in direct nursing care.

The board, which is authorized to cut the budget when the legislature is not in session, also voted to partially roll back rate increases for other providers paid through the state-federal Medicaid program, including nonprofit groups that help the disabled. O'Malley was greeted yesterday morning by several dozen people protesting that cut as he made the short walk from the governor's mansion in Annapolis to the Board of Public Works meeting.

"Sometimes in the journey of progress, it's three steps up and one step back, but that doesn't change the direction of progress," O'Malley told the protesters. "We're all going to try to get through this with as little pain as possible."

The state board reduced this year's increase in the rate paid to providers of services for the disabled from 2.7 percent to 2 percent.

Laura Howell, executive director of the Maryland Association of Community Services, said that the reduction might not sound significant but that it will make it more difficult for many struggling providers to maintain services. The 200 organizations that provide residential and job-related services typically receive no more than a meager increase from the state, Howell said.

"It's hard to know what straw breaks the camel's back," she said.

About $300 million of the almost $350 million in cuts made yesterday affect Maryland's general fund, the state's primary operating budget. A potential shortfall of $432 million had emerged largely because of lagging sales and income taxes.

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