March 15, 2010

City roads money, other programs survive panels’ axe

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By Andy Rosen
Andy@MarylandReporter.com

Baltimore City is likely to keep its share of the money that the state puts aside to help it fix its roads, as a Senate budget subcommittee rejected a plan to share $30 million in city highway aid with the 23 other counties.

That was one of dozens of proposed spending changes rejected by two Senate subcommittees as they cut about $200 million from the governor’s $32 billion budget.

Senators chose to maintain a $148,000 compensation package for Jerry Boden, chief of staff for the Department of Veterans Affairs. His salary is $117,000, $15,000 more than department secretary Edward Chow.

The overall size of the cuts will be offset by a capital spending decision that came later on Monday. The Senate capital budget subcommittee voted to reject a plan by Gov. Martin O’Malley to transfer nearly $40 million that had been put aside for historic renovation tax credits.

If the measure was approved, O’Malley would have been able to use the money for other operations in his fiscal 2011 budget. He has proposed extending the program. which is due to expire after this year, but the General Assembly hasn’t acted on it yet.

Sen. James “Ed” DeGrange, D-Anne Arundel, who heads the capital budget subcommittee, said the program extension should be taken separately from the plan to transfer the money. “I think the reasoning is that the program is working and we didn’t want to take out money,” he said.

The full Senate Budget and Taxation Committee is set to review the subcommittees’ proposed cuts on [CORRECTION] Thursday, before they are sent to the full Senate next Monday.

The Baltimore highway money had become a hot topic since legislative analysts proposed redistributing it as part of a plan that they believe would make highway aid to local governments fairer. Baltimore maintains all of the roads within its borders, unlike other jurisdictions, and gets more in aid than all other counties combined.

In fact, under O’Malley’s budget, Baltimore would get about $131 million, while other counties would split about $10 million.

At issue are the state’s “highway user revenues,” which come from gasoline and titling taxes, as well as other fees.

Rather than cut the money this year, senators decided to keep things the way they are for now. Baltimore will get $63 million less in state aid under Gov. Martin O’Malley’s proposed budget as it is.

A cut in highway aid to all the counties taken in this year’s budget is set to be extended into next year, which will allow the state to save $340 million by keeping 95 percent of the revenues set aside for local roads. The state has previously kept about 70 percent of the total highway user revenues, which also pay to maintain state roads.

The subcommittee instead asked a legislative workgroup now studying the relationships between state and local governments to look into the state revenue share.

“I think the allocation needs to be taken in a wider scope,” said Sen. DeGrange, D-Anne Arundel, who also heads the subcommittee on public safety, transportation and environment. He said there is not enough time to study the issue this year.

Sen. Verna Jones, D-Baltimore City fought the cut, saying it was premature.

“To do something arbitrary right now, I don’t think would be fair to anyone,” she said.