The Maryland Senate, after two hours of debate on one big item and one little one, today gave preliminary approval to its version of the 1984 budget.
Both debated items produced budget cuts: the state employes health insurance fund by $4.5 million and the Environmental Trust Fund by $5,000.
The trust has one of the smallest budgets of any state agency, but its magazine had the temerity last year to rate senators on their environmental votes, and many of them fared poorly.
The decrease in the $114.7 million health insurance fund was tempered by approval of an amendment sponsored by Sen. Tommie Broadwater Jr. (D-Prince George's) that says the state will restore funds as needed if the cut results in a decrease in benefits and/or an increase in employe contributions.
"We're going to ask Blue Cross/Blue Shield to find a way to cut costs so this money won't be needed," said Senate President Melvin A. Steinberg, who had agreed to the compromise in a Senate leadership meeting this morning. "If they don't do that, we're going to make it clear that we're willing to listen to other health care providers who would like to pick the state up as a client. I don't think we'll have to pick up that extra money."
Sen. John C. Coolahan (D-Baltimore County), a member of the Budget and Tax Committee that proposed the cut, opposed the amendment, saying it would "open the door to the possibility of the state having to pick up $6 or $8 or $10 million if costs go up."
The state spent $88 million last year for employe health insurance, and Gov. Harry Hughes had recommended a $26 million increase for this year. The House also cut $4.5 million of that recommended increase and the Senate Committee had recommended adopting the House language.
The Senate is expected to give final approval to the budget Wednesday. After that, a House/Senate conference committee will decide whether to retain the absolute cut of the House or the possible cut of the Senate.
State employes vehemently fought the cut, pointing out that in addition to not giving them a pay raise this year, the senate passed legislation that would decrease their pension benefits. Even though the pension bill is expected to die in the House, the state workers felt the Senate owed them one.
"If we hadn't passed the pension bill we wouldn't have had to do this," said Sen. Laurence Levitan (D-Montgomery), chairman of Budget and Tax. "It's okay though. Since we didn't have any abortion amendments this year, we needed something to fight over."
The senators got into a lengthy argument before deleting $5,000 from the Environmental Trust's comparatively minuscule budget request of $93,000.
"A political hit list," said Coolahan of the magazine article that appeared just prior to last fall's election. Sen. James Clark Jr. (D-Howard), and Sen. Julian L. Lapides (D-Baltimore), who scored 100 percent on the test, tried to restore the money, drawing a storm of protest from their colleagues.
"We don't need to give them public money to rate senators," said Majority Leader Clarence W. Blount (D-Baltimore).
"Let's send them a message so they won't pull this kind of thing again," added Minority Leader John A. Cade (R-Anne Arundel), showing that the two parties can put aside partisan differences on a crucial issue.
When Lapides stood to defend the Environmental Trust, Coolahan raged, "I'm shocked that the chairman of the Ethics Committee would defend a group that has used public funds this way."
At the mention of the word "ethics," Lapides sank to his knees as if shot and pulled himself onto the president's podium.
Steinberg cut Coolahan off saying, "The gentleman is out of order. The senator from Baltimore has been granted asylum on the podium."
Lapides could not gain that kind of protection for the environmental group, however, and the cut was approved.
"When it comes to the key issues," Levitan said, "We take no prisoners."