Md. House Passes 'Prudent' $13.7 Billion Spending Plan

By John Wagner and Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, April 12, 2009

The House of Delegates signed off on a compromise spending plan for the coming year and the Senate approved a bill designed to help keep the Preakness Stakes in Maryland as lawmakers weighed dozens of bills yesterday in advance of tomorrow's scheduled adjournment.

The House voted 106 to 30 for a $13.7 billion general fund budget that freezes state spending at most agencies and cuts aid to local government but increases funding for several priorities, including a planned tuition freeze at public universities.

Del. Norman H. Conway (D-Wicomico), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said the plan, hammered out in recent days with Senate negotiators, is "fiscally prudent and socially responsible" and includes "some massive reductions" in spending.

Republican delegates protested that the state was relying too heavily on federal stimulus money to balance the budget and could face large shortfalls when the aid from Congress runs out in two years.

"We're spending a whole lot of money we don't have," said Del. Warren E. Miller (R-Howard).

The House also voted 120 to 14 to approve a separate state capital budget that includes $260 million for public school construction.

The Senate is expected to take up both budget plans early tomorrow on what is expected to be a very busy final legislative day.

Before the operating budget arrived on the House floor, negotiators from the two chambers reversed a decision made a day earlier to deny Marylanders a state tax break when purchasing a new car.

A provision included in the federal stimulus package by Congress provides a federal break in the titling tax and leaves it to states to decide whether to offer an accompanying benefit. For a $20,000 car, the federal savings is about $350, while the state break would be $96.

On Friday, budget negotiators decided against offering the break to save the state about $10 million in a difficult budget year. But after hearing concerns from U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) and others, the lawmakers changed their minds yesterday morning.

The Senate, meanwhile, voted 32 to 14 for an emergency bill that authorizes the state to exercise eminent domain over Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore and all rights associated with the Preakness and the race trophy, the Woodlawn Vase. The state also would have authority to issue bonds to finance their purchase.

The bill, sponsored by Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), would give the state the same authority over two other facilities owned by Magna Entertainment: the Laurel Park racetrack and the Bowie Race Course training center. Magna's assets are being sold in federal bankruptcy proceedings.

Senate Minority Leader Allan H. Kittleman (R-Howard) raised concerns about whether the state should be contemplating taking private property when it is not clear whether the Preakness is at risk of leaving Maryland.

"I'm a lifelong Marylander," Kittleman told his colleagues. "I love the Preakness as much as anyone. . . . But I love the constitution more."

His colleagues said the state should arm itself with the tools it needs to maintain a Maryland tradition and protect horse racing before it's too late.

"We've got to invest in our history and preserve this industry," said Sen. Barry Glassman (R-Harford).

The House, meanwhile, fended off amendments to the same bill before advancing it for final consideration.

A House committee also approved a bill yesterday that restricts the Prince George's County Board of Education from spending any funds on a controversial new headquarters. The full House will probably approve the measure tomorrow.

Lawmakers added the restriction to a bill that extends health benefits to members of the board after the next election. The assembly, led by senators from Prince George's, have been determined to legislatively prevent the school board from spending money on new offices.

The board voted in June to sign a 10-year, $36 million lease for the Washington Plaza office space. The new offices were to replace the aging former school where the system is headquartered and consolidate other offices scattered across the county. But critics said it was a poor use of money in an economic climate that has forced school closures.

The school system has begun moving into the complex, and it is not clear whether the system would have to pay a penalty to break the lease. Board Chairwoman Verjeana M. Jacobs (At Large) said last week that negotiations with the building's owner are continuing.

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