The General Assembly today enacted a $5.6 billion state budget for next year after a House-Senate conference committee agreed in most instances to halve cuts made by the House that were opposed by the Senate and Gov. Harry Hughes.
The most controversial result of three days of closed-door meetings by the six-member conference was a decision to reduce Medicaid payments for the poor next year by $11 million, an action that states officials say will force thousands from Medicaid services. The $11 million reduction represented a victory for House budget-cutters, who originally proposed deferring $15 million.
"This is going to hurt people, no question about it," Senate Budget and Taxation Committee Chairman Laurence Levitan (D-Montgomery) told his colleagues, who had sent the issue to the conference by opposing any Medicaid reduction.
The budget worked out by the conference committee also killed any hope for the state employes pay raise proposed by Gov. Harry Hughes by eliminating the $25 million item. The pay raise issue already had been dropped by Hughes and other supporters because revenue measures it depended on had altered or killed, but state employes representatives had hopes until this afternoon of reviving the $500 across-the-board increase.
"A lot of promises were made to us and none of them were kept," said a bitter Steve Diamond, head of the Maryland Classified Employees Association. "We were promised to be the first priority of the governor and we never were. Obviously the only answer is some kind of political action." the Medicaid reduction and the pay raise cut, but debate on the budget was tempered by the necessity of voting either for or against the entire conference committee report only hours before a deadline for passage of the budget.
In the end the conference committee's report passed by a voice vote in the House and a 30-to-14 vote in the Senate and the full budget was approved in both chambers just as easily.
In other legislative action, the House passed a hastily redrafted version of Hughe's horseracing reorganization plan, while the Senate considered a different version but took no action on it.
Earlier, an Anne Arundel circuit judge also enjoined the budget conference committee from closing its doors to press coverage. As Judge Nathaniel W. Hopper ruled on the motion by The Baltimore News-American, the conference committee was completing its work.
State lawyers sought to overturn the ruling, and effort rebuffed on a technicality by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals. By then, however, the issue was moot as the budget was adopted.
The final budget enacted today reduces Hughes' original budget by $49.5 million, but $21 million of the cuts is contingent on passage of separate legislation that in many instances already has been killed.
The total reduction is about $5 million less than cuts approved by the House a month ago, and in the most important area -- general state program funds -- $20 million of House cuts were reduced to $16 million, about the amount Hughes had said was expected and acceptable.
In many cases, the conference committee split differences between House and Senate versions of the budget. While the Senate voted to restore 77 Health Department positions sliced by the House, for example, the conference committee settled at restoring 41 of the jobs, which were another priority of Hughes' budget lobbying.
In the University of Maryland budget, another controversial area, the conferees restored a $550,000 cut by the House in tuition funding, but agreed to other House cuts in equipment and renovation at the University Hospital in Baltimore.
Several senators charged today that the three Senate conferees had capitulated by agreeing to too many of the House cuts, which have been roundly denounced as irresponsible in the Senate over the past weeks. "Seventy days of work have really been negated by the work of the conference committee," said Sen. Julian Lapides (D-Baltimore).
Senate President James Clark (D-Howard) responded that "if we waited for everyone to agree, we'd never get [the budget] done."
The racing bill passed by the House would create a state authority that would buy the thoroughbred track at Bowie for $12 million and operate it until 1983, at which time it would be closed and its business given to the two other one-mile tracks -- Laurel and Pimlico.
The measure hastily was substituted for Hughes' original plan to buy Bowie's business -- but not the track -- and close the facility next year. That bill, which included a host of other provisions for the surviving tracks and other elements of horseracing, sank in a swamp of legal and political difficulties last month.
The revised and simplified bill passed the House by a margin of 78 to 43 and the difficulties it is expected to face in the Senate were represented by a host of delegates who rose to denounce the plan, in some cases for the simple reason that it dealt with Maryland's most tainted industry.
"A few years ago, I voted on some racetrack legislation and everybody involved went to jail," said Del. DeCorsey Bolden (R-Garrett), referring to the scandal that ended in the political corruption conviction of former Gov. Marvin Mandel and five associates. "For that reason I'm voting against the bill."