Md. panel slashes as its power is disputed

$362 million in new cuts draws protests from legislators

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 19, 2009

In the months since Maryland's legislature adjourned, Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) has persuaded two state officials to slash hundreds of millions of dollars from the budget -- more than the General Assembly cut during its session. On Wednesday, their effort to cope with the economic downturn continued as they trimmed financial aid for thousands of college students and sealed plans to close a state psychiatric hospital.

Coming on top of earlier cuts to health-care programs and funding for road improvements, the scope of the latest round drew protests from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. During a packed hearing, at which the three-member Board of Public Works voted to proceed with closing the Upper Shore Community Mental Health Center, strip $7 million in funding for a financial aid program for students of low- and middle-income parents, and take other actions to shore up the budget, the lawmakers argued unsuccessfully that the governor should defer controversial decisions until January, when the legislature reconvenes.

The cuts, transfers and other measures total $362 million.

"Leave it to the legislature," Del. Heather R. Mizeur (D-Montgomery) told O'Malley and other members of the board. "There's too many lives at stake, care needs at stake, too much pain in the community."

O'Malley's two fellow board members, Comptroller Peter Franchot (D) and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D), at times expressed concern. "I assume that this is a constitutional cut or it wouldn't have been brought before the board," Kopp said of the governor's plan to trim 33 percent from the Joseph A. Sellinger Program, which provides aid to 15,000 students. "We're not a mini-legislature," Franchot later said. "With [these cuts], we're getting dangerously close to setting policy."

In most states, legislators must approve budget cuts, and in a handful of others, governors have the power to strike funding line by line. But Maryland's Board of Public Works is the only state entity with constitutional authority to cut as much as 25 percent of funding for almost any state program or agency, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Rather than convene a special session of the legislature, O'Malley has worked through the board to cut $1.1 billion since July. The effort has allowed Maryland to maintain its good standing with creditors and bond raters while reacting to a precipitous drop in tax revenue that has befuddled states nationwide.

Calling the cuts "very painful . . . but necessary," O'Malley used the board Wednesday to reach deeper into state programs than a governor has in decades.

Part of the controversy came in defining the governor's authority to cut "25 percent."

In the days leading up to Wednesday's board meeting, lawyers for the General Assembly and governor's office and Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler (D) passed around opinions from 1991, debating whether O'Malley and the board had the right to cut an agency's total budget by 25 percent or individual programs by 25 percent.

The latter is much more restrictive, an interpretation preferred by local governments, advocates for the mentally ill and others who say it better captures the spirit of the law.

But T. Eloise Foster, O'Malley's budget secretary, said Wednesday that the administration's lawyers think the broader definition applies. Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for Gansler, said that's also the position of the attorney general's office. The 1991 opinions say the legislature has the power to better define the governor's budget-cutting authority, but it has never done so.

Tina M. Bjarekull, president of the Maryland Independent College and University Association and a former fiscal analyst in the state Senate, said she subscribes to the narrower interpretation and never thought the governor and board could cut more than 25 percent from Sellinger or any other program.

"We are out of options, and we are opposed to the cut," she told the board. "We will have less financial aid next semester. We will have more students who won't be able to enroll." The board reduced O'Malley's proposed cut to Sellinger from $9 million to $7 million, but that still exceeds a 25 percent reduction.

Most of the protest centered on the closing of Upper Shore.

"The legislature should do this, not the Board of Public Works," said Republican Sen. E.J. Pipkin, who represents the Kent County district with the 40-bed hospital. "To have [the governor] make these cuts while school is out of session makes it very difficult."

Mizeur applauded the work of the board to keep the budget in line. But, she said, "tough times like this raise questions about what kind of authority" the legislature should abdicate to the board.

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