Supporters of mandatory limits on state spending, whose efforts last year were thwarted at the last minute by Gov. Harry Hughes and legislative leaders, today announced a more modest drive to pass two of their bills in a General Assembly preoccupied with a shrinking budget.
The new spending limit initiatives -- a constitutional amendment and a state statute that would limit state budget increases to the increase of personal income in Maryland -- are being sponsored by 51 delegates and 27 senators. The number of sponsoring senators represents a majority in the Senate, including three members who helped narrowly defeat the bills last year.
Several of the initiative's chief supporters nevertheless conceded today that the drive for the Proposition 13-inspired bills was not likely to be strong in the already bleak budgetary climate this year, and that many supporters would save their energy until next year, when votes might be influenced by the coming elections.
"We're just doing it to keep the issue alive," maintained one House floor leader for the bills.
Sen. Francis X. Kelly (D-Baltimore County), the chief sponsor of the spending limit proposals in the Senate, acknowledged at a press conference, "We've heard about the prognosis." He added: "Actually, I think it's good we're considered the underdogs this year. We are not taking this proposal lightly."
Hughes and most of the legislature's leadership, who last year were taken by surprise when the six-bill spending limit package was voted out of committees and both the House and Senate, this year are not taking the issue lightly, either.
In an effort to defuse support for the mandatory limits, the leadership, led by House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Baltimore) has drafted a proposal for a spending oversight committee that each year would propose recommended ceilings for state spending. Such a committee already exists for annual state borrowing, though in the past its recommended limits have been discarded by the legislature.
House Majority Leader Donald B. Roberson (D-Montgomery) said today that the new oversight committee would be formed after the legislative session, and would make its first recommendations next year. And Hughes endorsed the idea at his own press conference, while reiterating his opposition to mandatory limits, which he called "arbitrary" and "unnecessary."
Kelly and other supporters of the manatory limits argue that the leadership's alternative proposal would never be effective. They pointed to Hughes' own promise during his campaign two years ago to keep budget increases within 5 percent a year, which was followed by budgets that inceased 6 and 11 percent.
This year the increase in Hughe's proposed budget is below what the limit law would allow. But Dallas Merrell, the leader of the Maryland Taxpayers Coalition, which plans a "citizens' drive" to support the bills, argued, "This year the check is the economy. But in future years, when prosperity returns and revenues increase, spending will go right back without a statutory check."
The first of the two bills proposed today is a constitutional amendment that would allow the legislature to pass a statute limiting spending. If passed, the amendment would also have to be approved by state voters before taking effect.
The second bill is an actual spending limit statute that ties budget increases to the total average increase in citizen's personal income. In recent years that increase has hovered around 9 percent, according to Kelly.