Donald Fry: An awkward sine die


By Donald C. Fry

For lawmakers, the tradition at midnight on the final day of the Maryland General Assembly session in Annapolis has usually been to cue the confetti and declare victory.

At midnight on April 9, the confetti shower was cancelled and no legislative leader was claiming victory.

Instead, Governor Martin O’Malley, Senate President Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael Busch spent the post-midnight aftermath and the morning-after telling reporters and constituents how it came about that the General Assembly ended up passing a “Doomsday” budget that no one in Annapolis expected to happen.

More than $500 million in cuts were enacted by lawmakers Monday night after the House and the Senate could not agree on a package of revenue increases and levels of local contributions to teacher pensions required to balance the state’s operating budget.

The cuts to education are “really a damn shame,” O’Malley said as he, Miller and Busch participated in bill signings the day after the session’s surprising finish. Enactment of the Doomsday budget is “pretty much the low point in my experience here,” the governor said.

“We proposed a budget to protect our shared priorities of public safety, quality education and affordable college,” Governor O’Malley tweeted to constituents. “This does not,” he said linking recipients to the page of the budget conference committee report that outlines cuts to education and to local governments.

What happened?

“We both came up with our own plans,” Miller said in a Tuesday morning interview on WAMU. The budget ultimately proved to be “a complex package that didn’t happen,” Miller said. Observers of the legislative process seem to agree that the two legislative chambers’ disparate revenue plans – both in size and approach – presented complexities not normally confronted on Sine Die.

Miller said he had the votes in the Senate for an 11th-hour budget plan that leaders from both houses had agreed upon. “I had the votes in the Senate on each and every thing,” he said. But “in the House, they couldn’t get the votes.”

He stated he was hopeful lawmakers can be called back to Annapolis and “give the governor an opportunity, along with the House members, to get their votes together.”

Busch’s account differed. He complained to reporters that the Senate did not send needed tax legislation over to the House in time to meet the midnight deadline.

Busch said he agrees the budget needs to be fixed, reported the Sun‘s Michael Dresser, “but you can’t until you have a plan.”

The ‘Doomsday’ cuts
The so-called “Doomsday” budget makes $512.2 million in cuts to proposed state operating expenses, more than half of which comes from reductions in public school funding and other aid to local jurisdictions.

Following is a more detailed summary of “Doomsday” cuts:

Education: Cuts amount to $204.9 million in education aid to the state’s jurisdictions, including $128.8 million by eliminating the Geographic Cost of Education Index, and $70.9 million by reducing the state funding foundation amount for $6,694 per pupil to $6,650.

Higher education: $74 million in state funding for higher education is cut, including $38.5 million in public higher education funding and $19.9 million in funding for community colleges. Also eliminated are $11.8 million in Delegate and Senatorial scholarships and $3.8 million in grants to nonpublic higher education institutions.

Other local aid: $57.4 million in additional state cuts are borne by local jurisdictions, including $31.6 in cuts to disparity grants and $20.8 million in cuts achieved by eliminating local law enforcement grants.

Tax credits: The budget cuts $25.4 million by eliminating three important funding incentives for business growth – funding for stem cell research, the biotechnology tax credit and the sustainable communities tax credit.

Health and human services: Cuts amount to $21.7 million, including eliminating $15.2 million in provider increases for the Developmental Disabilities Administration, Mental Hygiene Administration, foster care and non-public placements. Another $6.5 million in cuts are made by reducing capacity at Regional Institutes for Children and Adolescents, from which patients lawmakers presume can be absorbed in private Residential Treatment Centers.

State agencies: $128.8 million in operating funding is cut from state agencies, including $50 million derived from 8-percent reductions in agency operating expenses, $33.8 million by eliminating cost-of-living raises for state employees, $30 million by eliminating 500 positions and $15 million in savings by increasing state employees’ share of health insurance costs.

So what’s next in the aftermath of one of the most unusual conclusions to a Maryland General Assembly session in recent memory?

Miller and Busch both appear to agree a special session should be called to restore the spending cuts.

Governor O’Malley said he will not call a special session until legislative leaders have reached an agreement on how to address the budget issues, his spokesperson told the Sun on April 11.

Local government leaders preparing their fiscal budgets for the next year are faced with uncertainty of how much state aid will be forthcoming from Annapolis for education, community colleges, disparity grants, police grants, library funding, etc. The legislature’s conclusion on Sine Die certainly complicates these budget preparations.

Miller noted to WAMU on April 10 the passage of the Doomsday budget “is not a catastrophic event.” The General Assembly can return to Annapolis for a “do over” to fix the fiscal issues left unresolved.

It would not be unprecedented. The last time the General Assembly had to reconvene to fix the budget was 20 years ago. But resorting to “do-over” policy-making on core fiscal matters is not a best-case scenario for the State of Maryland or any legislature.

Let’s hope that doesn’t happen for at least another 20 years.

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