A Senate budget panel cut nearly $30 million out of the administration's nearly $8.2 billion budget today, earmarking part of the savings for a special reserve fund established in the wake of the state's thrift crisis.
The cut by the Budget and Taxation Committee was nearly twice what is normally trimmed from the governor's budget at this point in the review process, said Sen. Laurence Levitan, the committee chairman.
"There are a lot of items in the budget that could be cut without doing a lot of damage," said Levitan (D-Montgomery). "There was a feeling among the staff that because of the savings and loan crisis, the budget wasn't as carefully reviewed" as it usually is, he said.
The two subcommittees that reviewed the budget recommended a total of $32.8 million in reductions, including $25.2 million in general fund cuts, most of which the full committee approved today. The subcommittee on education and human resources funding completed its report today, while the subcommittee that concentrates on economic development, corrections and transportation must continue its presentation Thursday.
The budget is scheduled to go the full Senate for review early next week, and then to the House of Delegates. To be approved, it must pass both houses by March 31.
Members of the Senate panel, which reviewed the budget first this year, argued that they had an extra responsibility to come up with $15 million to add to the $35 million already set aside by Gov. Harry Hughes in a special reserve fund. The creation of the fund was recommended by analysts in the wake of the savings and loan crisis to demonstrate the state's fiscal prudence and as a cushion against losses from adverse economic circumstances.
Among the items that generated the most controversy was a $4 million cut in funds to help low-income households make energy saving repairs, which followed a $3.7 million cut in block grant funds for the "weatherization" program that a subcommittee had approved. After extensive debate, the full committee voted 7 to 6 to approve the additional $4 million cut, which social service advocates strongly opposed.
"We tried to make the case that the need has already been demonstrated," said John Stanton, a lobbyist for Associated Catholic Charities, which funds many programs that aid the poor. "At the present pace that the program operates, we estimate it will take about 20 years to weatherize all the homes" that are eligible.
But other members said the state will have other sources of revenue to pay for the program, including $35 million scheduled to be refunded to the state from excess profits made by Exxon.