UPDATE: Partisan themes play out in House debate as budget passes

By Len Lazarick and Andy Rosen

UPDATE: The House of Delegates Friday passed a $32 billion state budget for fiscal 2011. All but two of 37 Republicans voted against Gov. Martin O’Malley’s spending plan after a two-hour rehash of Thursday’s debate that was a preview of election year themes. (Two other paragraphs updated from Friday morning’s story are marked.)

UPDATE: It was the largest number of Republicans in recent years that had opposed the budget.

On Thursday, House Republicans offered and Democrats rejected additional budget cuts the GOP said were necessary to avoid massive tax increases next year.

Republicans even forced Democrats to vote on a symbolic amendment that said they didn’t intend to raise, expand, or create new taxes over the next four years.

That and other amendments Democrats rejected had House Majority Leader Kumar Barve reminding lawmakers about the tax and spending policies of Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich, who plans on running again this year.

Barve said the nonbinding tax language — typically not part of a budget debate — did not “shed a klieg light on the taxes that Governor Ehrlich raised,” even though Ehrlich called them “fees,” such as the “flush tax” for Bay Restoration and higher vehicle registration charges.

“It felt like a tax to people who paid them,” Barve said.

“To suggest that Ehrlich was major league on tax increases is almost Orwellian,” shot back House Republican Leader Tony O’Donnell.

In five hours of discussion, legislators quibbled along partisan lines about how much had been cut. Democrats say they lopped $120 million off of Gov. Martin O’Malley’s spending plan, but Republicans argued the figure was only one-tenth that. The budget will likely be up for a final vote Friday, but could still be changed on the floor.

The Republican proposal to cut what they said was $830 million from the budget — already largely rejected in committee — included cutting back on higher education, imposing a 1 percent cut across state agencies and halting state employee travel. Legislative staff said some of the savings were unrealistic, particularly $195 million Republicans said could be saved on false or inaccurate Medicaid claims. (For more details, see Andy Rosen’s report in MarylandReporter.com.)

Republicans complained that the proposals they laid out in the House hadn’t gotten serious consideration. But the debate highlighted the fundamental disagreement between the majority Democrats and the GOP.

Democrats want to keep as many programs intact as they can, hoping to ride out the precipitous drop in revenues that came along with the recession. A common argument on that side has been that pulling back on public spending could hurt the economy.

Republicans, on the other hand, have sought to use the recession as an opportunity to cut back on state spending they already saw as over-sized.  In the 2007 special session that raised all the major taxes, the GOP adage was: “We have a spending problem, not a revenue problem.”

A budget deficit as high as $2.2 billion looms in fiscal 2015, but House Democrats believe their proposal would cut that to $1.9 billion. The Senate’s budget proposal cuts it to $1.1 billon.

Republicans were also turned back on an amendment aimed at directing more state stem cell funding to “applied” research that focuses on adult, rather than controversial embryonic cells.  An attempt to cut Medicaid spending on abortions failed as well, as it had in the Senate.

The GOP plan also sought to get rid of the Geographic Cost of Education Index, a spending escalator for K-12 schools that hasn’t been fully-funded, but could add millions to state education aid. The aid goes to half the counties, but principally to the largest — and most Democratic jurisdictions — Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and Baltimore City.

It also would have killed the Chesapeake Bay trust fund that is used to put money aside for cleanup costs

House Minority Whip Chris Shank said the measures would stop what he sees as excessive state spending. The plan would also lay off 1,000 higher education employees and 500 state workers

“State government has grown beyond the means of its taxpayers to support it,” Shank said.

Del. John Bohanan, D-St. Mary’s, one of the House budget leaders, said all of the proposals got a fair look. But he said the cuts would have damaged valuable state programs, and were beyond what is necessary. He pointed to the fact that the House budget plan projects to close fiscal 2011 with a remaining balance of $284 million.

Barve took it a step further. He said the layoffs in the Republican plan would slow economic recovery.

“Why are we turning anybody out on the streets unnecessarily?” he asked, “The answer cannot be to put thousands or hundreds of people out on the streets or unemployed.”

UPDATE: Dels. Page Elmore, Lower Shore, and Wendel Beitzel, Garrett-Allegany, were the only two Republicans to vote for the budget, along with 102 Democrats. Elmore said he had voted “for all the amendments to try to take the spending out,” but “when all that’s failed, the fight’s over and you’ve got to go home and defend it.”

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