A rebellion by the Maryland Senate's budget committee turned into a serious challenge to Gov. Harry Hughes today as the panel unexpectedly reaffirmed its intention to go along with a House of Delegates move to slash $54 million from the state budget.
The decision to accept the House cuts without even reviewing them came at the end of several days of intense bickering between the two legislative chambers during which the senators accused House leaders of using them as political scapegoats. According to several senators, House leaders privately disapproved of the massive budget cutting but went along with it because they assumed that the Senate committee would undo much of what the House had done.
Today, in reconsidering and reaffirming a vote it had made the day before, the Senate committee made it clear that it did not want to be stuck with that politically unpopular burden and was willing to play hardball budget politics with the House.
As a result of the committee's action, Hughes, who had been a sort of passive bystander in the legislative dispute, now finds himself in the difficult situation of trying to save the budget he prizes by battling on the Senate floor with the very committee he expected to support him.
Hughes, who hopes to reverse a $15 million diversion of Medicaid funding, across-the-board cuts in employe positions and other House actions, tried to head off such a floor fight today by calling the Senate committee members to a meeting in his office tomorrow morning. "We hope they will change their minds," said Gene Oishi, Hughes press secretary. "The governor hopes to use his good office to provide a forum where the differences can be ironed out."
Hughes, who already has secluded himself to consider whether to add an employes' pay raise to the budget by raising gasoline taxes or other state revenues, also called off his regular Thursday press conference tomorrow. "No decisions have been made," Oishi explained.
The Senate committee's uprising began with a 9-2 vote yesterday to abandon the panel's own budget sessions along with its own proposed cuts totalling a more modest $23 million and simply adopted the version of the budget passed by the House, which spent three days debating the long list of cuts recommended by its own committee before approving most of them.
The Senate move was led by conservative committee members, who resented their sudden status as advocates of programs the House had voted to slash. But it was also supported by more moderate senators who maintained that if the Senate approved the House actions, House leaders who they believed had jumped on a budget-cutting bandwagon for political reasons would be "taught a lesson" and would not approve "irresponsible" cuts again.
That theory caused House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Baltimore), the focus of much of the criticism, to appear at the committee's meeting this mornng to "clear the air," as he later put it. "We didn't take a single cut because of the Senate of Maryland," he said. "We don't want restorations. I hope they would support most of the changes we have made. But I told them that I hoped the Senate would conduct their own review and add to the product."
Cardin's talk apparently did little to persuade the senators. Although yesterday, several proponents of the move conceded their strategy was "irresponsible" and unlikely to hold up, the action was reaffirmed today by a narrow 7-6 margin after a long and somewhat rancorous debate.
For the second day, the senators proposing the move noted that the House cuts would hurt personal projects, but argued, as Sen. Julian Lapides put it, "I'm willing to take my lumps because I think this is in the public interest -- at least for future General Assemblies."
Other senators argued that they would rather accept the House cuts than make their own recommendations and leave the most imprtant budget decisions to a six-member conference committee they would do little to control. "I would rather play the cards in my hand than throw them in and take a chance at getting six new ones," said Sen. Erle Schafer (D-Anne Arundel), who added that he couldn't forget that "this is something that's happening from the national level down."