The group of Maryland state senators who came to Annapolis this year vowing to cut the state budget drastically ended their effort today, even failing to come close to cutting enough to prevent the sales tax increase proposed by Gov. Marvin Mandel.
Senators managed to cut a total of about $4.8 million from Mandel's proposal - far short of the $120 million needed to eliminate the need for an increase in the sales tax from the current 4 per cent to 5 per cent. The sales tax increase - while almost certain now - can still be defeated in a separate vote.
The five-day budget cutting effort by a coalition of just under half the 47 members of the Senate came to an end amid unusual personal accusations, questioning of motives, and shouting as several senators expressed "frustration" at their clear failure to wrest some control of the budget-making process from Mandel.
The end of the drive to cut Mandel's budget proposal and avoid increasing the sales tax rate from 4 to 5 per cent for the year beginning in July was signaled shortly after today's session began, when a recess was called in order that the senate leadership and leaders of the budget-cutters could work out a compromise.
Under its terms, the senators seeking to cut the budget gave up three of their four most important cuts in favor of a largely cosmetic reduction in the state payment to Medicaid health providers, a cut that will simply add $3.5 million to a debt of about $35 million the state already owes Medicaid doctors.
The deal angered some members of the budget-cutting group. What it means, said Sen. James C. Simpson (D-Charles), is that "we haven't done anything. We just spent days doing nothing."
But Sen. John A. Cade (R-Anne Arundel), a central figure in the effort to cut the budget, said the process did produce positive results.
"We've demonstrated that we need to take a serious look at the way we prepare the budget," Cade said. "We're supposed to be the policy-making part of government. We've got to figure out a way to do something without the administrative tail wagging the dog."
The three budget cuts that were withdrawn were all sponsored by Cade. One of them illustrates the difficulty the budget cutters faced.
On Friday, Cade introduced an amendment designed to have about $1 million in state spending by eliminating 93 budgeted state jobs have been vacant for at least 12 months.
After the amendment was adopted, the Senate discovered it was unclear whether the money for the job was being spent in some other fashion, whether some of the jobs were the same ones that had already been eliminated by a Senate budget committee, or in some ways exactly what the jobs were.
The budget process is controlled by Mandel. He proposes the budget. The legislature's role under Maryland law, one of the most executively-oriented budget laws in the country, is limited to recommending possible cuts.
Even when the legislature approves cuts, though, Mandel can submit supplemental budgets that spend the money the legislature cut on the governor's second and third-level priority.
This year, the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee recommended cuts totaling $6.4 million from the $3.9 billion budget, Mandel proposed. Almost before the recommended cuts could be printed, Mandel sent down that would spend all the money the Budget and Taxation Committee recommended cutting from the budget.
A move to eliminate all the spending contained in the supplemental budget was overwhelmingly defeated today.
One major cut sought by some senators was elimination of the $4.6 million in-school driver education program. Although the move faled, the Senate did approve a bill that would end state support for the program after next year, and give the counties and Baltimore the option of funding driver education on their own if they want to offer the service to students.