March 19, 2010

Senators cut stem cell research, environment and consider trimming school aid

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The Senate budget committee put off decisions on $60 million in local school aid Thursday, but lawmakers made many controversial decisions about tax credits, environmental programs and life science research.

The committee is scheduled to meet Friday to discuss spending related to local governments. Senators are considering ways to reduce the state’s commitment for teacher pensions and aid formulas, and looking at how Maryland should distribute road aid to local governments in coming years.

The committee moved forward on several important changes to Gov. Martin O’Malley’s spending plan, cutting programs that support stem cell research and Chesapeake Bay cleanup in half. Nobody had a complete estimate of what the committee cut, but some senators estimated it was somewhere around $275 million from Gov. Martin O’Malley’s $32 billion proposal.

Stem cells

The Senate voted to cut O’Malley’s proposed spending on a grant program to support stem cell research, from $12.4 million to $6.2 million. The shift is likely to touch off debate with the House, where delegates typically have maintained more funding for the controversial initiative.Sen. Lowell Stoltzfus, R-Eastern Shore, proposed restricting half of the money left in the program for “applied” research. Now, most of the money goes to “basic” research, which is further away from patient care.

“We know when the state spends money on research, we’re looking for some kind of response. We’re lookig for some cures,” said Stoltzfus. His wife has Parkinson’s disease, which may be treated using stem cell therapy.

In rejecting Stoltzfus’s plan by one vote, other senators said they sympathize with Stoltzfus, but don’t believe there’s enough demand for applied research grants. Opponents of embryonic stem cell research have fought for more applied research as well, because basic research uses cells derived from human embryos.

Environment

The budget committee also voted to cut the state’s program to clean up the Chesapeake Bay and Maryland’s Atlantic coastal bays from $20 million to $10 million.

Jen Brock-Cancellieri, deputy director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, said state agencies that handle environmental program are facing larger cuts on average than other agencies.

“We are disappointed that the Senate continues to cut the environmental budget three times more than average reduction made to other state agencies,” she said.

Weatherization

The panel also voted to change the way that the state distributes the proceeds from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, an interstate compact that charges power producers for some emissions.

Money that was originally supposed to go toward home weatherization would now go directly toward ratepayer assistance under the Senate proposal.

Some environmental groups believe it could have an effect as large as $30 million. Federal stimulus dollars had been plugging the gap until recently.

“Weatherization is better for the consumer over the long run,” said Fielding Huseth of MaryPIRG. He said consumers can save three times as much on energy when they make their homes more efficient. “Instead of teaching to people to fish, they gave people a fish.”

Newspapers

At a time when the newspaper industry is hurting, the committee also voted to cut $512,000 that would have gone toward inserting the comptroller’s annual report on unclaimed property in newspapers. The report would be online-only under the plan.

Budget transfers

Lawmakers also pushed back on O’Malley’s use of transfers from special pots of money to balance this year’s budget. They rejected a $20 million shift from the fund balance at the Injured Workers Insurance Fund, as well as a measure that would have drained $40 million from a reserve fund for a historic property rehabilitation tax credit.

Coal tax

Sen. George Edwards, D-Western Maryland, convinced the committee not to cut a tax credit for coal mined in the state. The measure would have freed up about $4.5 million for other uses.