Prospect of budget cuts dominates lawmakers' year

(Richard A. Lipski - The Washington Post)
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By Daniel Valentine
The Gazette
Thursday, January 7, 2010

With massive budget cuts on the radar, Prince George's County and state lawmakers said they expect intense fighting in 2010 just to retain current funding levels -- and with elections toward the end of the year, getting officials to take on controversial legislation might become even more challenging.

"Unfortunately, this means that not a whole lot gets done" in the legislative session that begins Jan. 13, said Del. Justin Ross. The Greenbelt Democrat said many incumbents will be playing a "preventive defense" instead of making tough decisions.

Since the start of the economic downturn in 2007, tax revenue has been sinking and county and state cuts have been the norm, causing employee furloughs and spending reductions. In the past year, the county laid off about 50 employees and the state laid off 200.

The cuts on the table for the coming year might be even worse. Maryland lawmakers must eliminate a $1.5 billion to $2 billion budget deficit before the General Assembly ends in April, according to state projections.

A federal stimulus package helped stop some of the bleeding last year, but no similar measure is in the pipeline.

Prince George's lawmakers are concerned that state cuts in aid could intensify the county's financial woes before they must pass a budget in mid-June. A state cut of about $26 million in August sparked County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) to lay off employees to balance costs, and officials have repeatedly said they worry about a repeat in the General Assembly.

"If you look at the cuts we've had to make already, they speak for themselves," said John Erzen, spokesman for the executive. "It's not unreasonable to think that [the fiscal year that starts in July] could look worse."

County officials have not provided exact figures on the outlook for next year's spending plan. This year's was $2.6 billion.

"It looks bad, very bad," Johnson said of the budget forecast in an interview in November.

That kind of pressure creates struggles in the legislature, especially in an election year, Ross said.

"It's not just the only thing. It's everything," he said.

Del. Melony G. Griffith (D), head of the Prince George's delegation, agreed.

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