Analysis: Session as partisan and contentious as forecast

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By Len Lazarick

Ninety days ago, I wrote here that the coming legislative session promised to be “contentious, partisan and painful.”

Most of the time, I wouldn’t dredge up a past forecast, since they are often wrong. It’s hard enough to get the facts right, and the future is best left to fortune tellers. But this year, I was right.

“Finger-pointing accusations will soon replace back-slapping camaraderie,” my preview read. “Lawmakers are heading into an election year when the electorate is wary and many voters are angry and unemployed.”

The meeting that was the subject of that January 13 article was a bellwether of conflicts to come. There, Senate Republican Leader Allan Kittleman challenged county officials to ask their state legislators how they plan to balance future budgets.

 “Is there going to be a tax increase in 2011?” he asked. “Are we going to hit you with higher taxes or are we not?”

That turned out to be the persistent GOP theme of a session that centered on the leanest budget in years.

Kittleman’s challenge to House Speaker Michael Busch, who was speaking on the same panel, led Busch to demand that Republicans present their own plans to cut the budget.

Ultimately, the House GOP did. Kittleman’s Senate caucus begged off, but two GOP senators did offer a proposal that ultimately influenced Senate action on pensions. The House Appropriations Committee rejected that measure, but did take a few suggestions from the GOP plan – directing Gov. Martin O’Malley to cut 500 state jobs..

But ultimately the budget committees reduced a proposed $32.5 billion spending plan by about $500 million dollars (page 8). There were many fund swaps and formula changes, but about $300 million of those spending cuts came in local aid. These reductions will force the counties to cut spending or raise taxes on the same people who also pay for state government.

Readers may be confused that persistently refers to a $32 billion budget, while our reporter colleagues often write about a $13 billion “operating budget.”  We talked about this back in January, quoting budget experts.  This $13 billion is the “general fund” budget, and is now less than half of what the state really spends.

This “general fund” budget doesn’t include “special funds” for transportation or any federal dollars. When we talk about the budget at, we talk about the “all funds” or “total funds” budget. It doesn’t make sense not to include transportation, transit, the bulk of the university budgets, and federal funding of health care and other programs when counting state spending.

According to legislative documents, the “all funds” fiscal 2011 budget goes down for the first time in at least 40 years. Beyond that, the accompanying budget reconciliation act holds down growth in spending in 2012 and 2013. The spending plan also reduces projected future budget gaps by about a third.

But there’s still a problem, largely driven by a 3.8 percent, or $200 million, jump in aid to public schools. in the coming year. The big jump in aid to education was passed without a funding source in 2002, one of the principal reasons most Republicans opposed it at the time.

The floor debates on this year’s budget were highly partisan, as they have been for O’Malley’s entire term. Five years ago, no Republican delegates voted against Gov. Bob Ehrlich’s budget that raised spending 9 percent, including another increase in K-12 aid.

This year, 35 Republicans – all but two of them – voted against a budget that actually reduces spending. They said the cuts aren’t enough and use too many gimmicks. Only two GOP senators voted against the budget five years ago – Sens. Andy Harris and Alex Mooney; this year, eight out of 14 Republican senators opposed the budget.

That was then. This is now, in the midst of the Great Recession. Five years ago there was a Republican governor with a robust economy generating rising revenues. When elected officials – Republicans or Democrats — have the revenues, they spend them. When they don’t, as O’Malley does not, they can’t increase spending the way they’d like to.

The budget debates this session foreshadow the partisan jockeying on spending that will likely continue throughout this election year, as Ehrlich’s campaign announcement last week made clear.

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