The Maryland Senate, bending to the will of President Melvin A. Steinberg, rebelled against its own budget committee today and overturned a $36 million across-the-board cut in Gov. Harry Hughes' $7.5 billion budget.
In a show of muscle that persuaded a majority of senators to abandon their traditional support for committee recommendations on preliminary votes, Democrat Steinberg managed to reverse the reduction on the floor of the Senate.
He had failed to persuade the Budget and Taxation Committee to reconsider its action during a sometimes heated meeting Tuesday.
Tonight, the Senate gave preliminary approval to the budget, with total reductions of $29 million, $4 million more than was cut earlier by the House of Delegates.
This afternoon's 31-to-14 vote to reverse the committee's $36 million across-the-board cut represents a victory both for Steinberg and Hughes, who criticized the committee's action as irresponsible and said it jeopardized millions in local aid for Montgomery County and Baltimore.
The cut, which had been twice upheld by the budget committee on 8-to-5 votes, would have forced every state agency to reduce its payroll and fringe benefits by 2 percent and would have left up to state bureaucrats the decisions on how to reach the target.
The reduction was equivalent to about 1,600 positions in a state government work force of about 83,000, which currently has about 3,800 vacancies.
Proponents of the reduction, led by members of the budget panel, made an impassioned defense during a two-hour debate on the Senate floor today, venting frustration at a budget process they said is stacked in favor of the governor and bureaucrats who are rarely accountable to the will of the General Assembly.
"We don't make a difference," said Sen. Catherine I. Riley (D-Harford County), one of the eight members of the budget committee who supported the cut. "Anything we do here gets undone anyway. The agencies do what they want . . . . Is there something wrong with the budgetary process in Maryland? You betcha."
Sen. Stewart Bainum Jr., a Montgomery County Democrat who first proposed the so-called "management cut," called the weeks of budget review by his committee a "charade," that annually results in reductions of about one-quarter of one percent. "We think the cut is conservative. We think it is prudent," said Bainum.
But opponents argued that the across-the-board reduction represented meat-cleaver budgeting at its worst and said the impact of the cut would mean the loss of jobs held by lower-echelon state employes.
Although the Hughes administration has said the governor would not submit a supplemental budget containing funds for road projects in Montgomery County and other local aid funds as long as the Senate insisted on the budget reduction, the impact of today's vote is unclear. Steinberg said today that "nothing is tied to this."
Hughes press spokesman Lou Panos said tonight that the governor would submit a supplemental budget "as funding permits," but refused to disclose what would be included.
But budget committee Chairman Laurence Levitan (D-Montgomery) remained optimistic that his county would get at least some of the $40 million in road and school funds it is seeking this year. "By the time it's over, we'll end up with some school money and some roads money."
Today's vote, the first time many veterans could recall the full Senate rejecting a major reduction endorsed by the budget panel and a highly unusual reversal of the committee system, demonstrated the command that Steinberg has over the 47-member body.
During his private meeting Tuesday with the budget committee, Steinberg rejected repeated offers from proponents of the budget cut to compromise their position, insisting that the panel reverse itself or face certain defeat on the floor.
"He just wants to demonstrate his control of the Senate," said one budget committee member. "He wasn't interested in compromise."