March 17, 2011

Committee hikes school aid to keep spending per pupil the same

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By Len Lazarick
Len@MarylandReporter.com

As expected, the education appropriations subcommittee in the House boosted school aid for fiscal 2012 so that all local school systems will receive the same amount per-pupil as they did last year.

In his budget, Gov. Martin O’Malley had proposed freezing education funding, but enrollment growth was going to produce less money per student. Education advocates and teachers unions had lobbied heavily for a restoration of the aid.

This action increases spending by $58 million, and the education subcommittee found only about $15 million in cuts elsewhere, while rejecting another $10 million in reductions proposed by legislative analysts.

Del. John Bohanan, chair of the education and economic development subcommittee, admitted that money for the hike in aid depends on “a lot of other actions that are being taken” by the three other appropriations subcommittees and the full committee when it meets on Friday.

Bohanan said ultimately when the full House Appropriations Committee acts, the $2 billion “structural deficit” would be reduced, the fund balance (surplus) would be higher than O’Malley has proposed, and “we preserve the number one priority, which has been education.”

Throughout dozens of decisions on specific budget items, the two Republican delegates on the subcommittee sought to reduce spending further in line with the GOP plan.

“The Republicans brought forth a reasonable proposal,” said Del. Kathy Szeliga, of Baltimore and Harford counties, level funding many programs and adding no new spending. But in the budget as voted by the strong Democratic majority, “we’re still increasing spending,” Szeliga said, despite the fact that many businesses, including her family’s construction firm, are still struggling.

The committee rejected $5 million in proposed cuts in tuition aid at community colleges. In what is an annual ritual, it also refused to cut $1.2 million for state and local arts organizations.

Overall spending on the arts is only $12.3 million, but local arts organizations bring down hundreds of well-connected supporters every year to lobby legislators.

Del. Melony Griffith, D-Prince George’s County, a strong ally of the arts on the subcommittee, said, “If you have an instrument in one hand and a sheet of music in the other, there’s little room for weapons or substances.”

The subcommittee took one of its biggest hits on the University System of Maryland central office, telling it to cut $8 million, to be funded by money from all the four-year universities.

Big Medicaid decisions left for the full committee

The Health and Human Resources Subcommittee tackled agency budgets and some changes to Medicaid funding on Wednesday. B the biggest item  –  raising an additional $372 million through hospital assessments – was put on hold for discussion by the full committee.

“Stay tuned,” said Del. Mary-Dulaney James, the subcommittee chair.

There were several tweaks made to the budget. The most significant would reduce Medicaid funding by $20 million in state funds and $20 million in matching federal funds by limiting errors and ensuring that benefits only go to people who are eligible.

James said that the subcommittee commissioned a study looking at ways that the program could save money by being more efficient. The study showed that there are ways that Medicaid can save money without impacting the quality and access of care. The language approved by the subcommittee does not specify what Medicaid needs to do to save that money.

“Clearly, the department has all flexibility here,” she said.

Other significant changes include cutting rate increases for managed care organizations – projected to save $9.5 million in both state and federal matching funds  — and doubling the fees for birth certificates. Analysts projected this could raise about $4 million in additional revenues.