Senate gives tentative approval to governor’s $32 billion budget

By Len Lazarick

In a marathon five-hour session Tuesday night, the Maryland Senate gave preliminary approval to Gov. Martin O’Malley’s $32 billion budget, cutting only about $100 million from his spending plan for fiscal 2011.

The senators rejected scores of amendments to make changes to the action taken by its own budget committee last week. They voted down attempts to ban funding of Medicaid abortions and stem cell research, and refused efforts to further cut funding for public schools. They also rejected efforts to boost funding for Chesapeake Bay cleanup or for highway funding to counties. Those are two of the many areas where O’Malley made cuts in order to fund other programs in the face of declining revenues.

The Senate also went along with committee recommendation to make counties share in the cost of teacher pensions beginning in 2012, a move being strenuously fought by local officials, school boards and the teachers union.

“To my way of thinking, I think it’s premature,” said Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George’s, a teachers union employee. He said the state should consider other options before making the shift. “Have we tried everything we can do? I don’t think we have.”

Pinsky renewed his call for passage of a corporate tax change known as “combined reporting,” which advocates believe could  raise $100 million a year.

The senators also resisted efforts to boost funding for local health departments and higher education, two of many areas scaled back by O’Malley to balance next year’s budget.

Part of the Senate’s budget plan also reduces spending in future years in separate legislation that implements the budget. Analysts believe changes before the chamber could save around $1 billion in future years, but not nearly as much this year.

“It seemed senseless to keep numbers [in the budget] that we were incapable of reaching in the out years,” said Sen. Ed Kasemeyer, D-Howard-Baltimore, the budget committee vice chairman and majority leader.

In the only large cut proposed from the floor, Senate Republican Leader Allan Kittleman, R-Carroll and Howard, sought to eliminate $126 million in the geographic cost of education index, even though his home county would benefit. The index automatically escalates school funding.

But Sen. Richard Madeleno, a budget committee member and chair of the Montgomery County delegation, argued that “this has been in place for almost a decade,” even though it has only been fully funded for two years.

Sen. Roy Dyson, D-St. Mary’s, tried to cut the $2.1 million spent on Medicaid abortions performed on the basis of the mental health of the mother. The measure would have overturned language that has been in the budget for 32 years.

“To fund abortions for mental health reasons is just wrong,” Dyson said. The state paid for 3,400 abortions for low-income women in fiscal 2009. “I think it’s morally wrong.”

Dyson’s effort failed in a 19 to 28 vote.

The Senate is expected to take final action on the budget today. The House of Delegates is working on its version of the budget this week.

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