Analysis: Putting a different spin on $39 billion state budget

Analysis: Putting a different spin on $39 billion state budget

Gov. Martin O'Malley was smiling as he presented the last of his eight budgets, with Budget Secretary Eloise Foster and Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown.

By Len Lazarick

Gov. Martin O'Malley explains budget highlight Wednesday.

Gov. Martin O’Malley explains budget highlight Wednesday.

Gov. Martin O’Malley unveiled a $39 billion budget Wednesday that grows spending by 5% with no new taxes or fee increases.

O’Malley as usual rolled out the new budget with an elaborate PowerPoint presentation to reporters that put a positive spin on the budget numbers.

You can find the PowerPoint presentation online and watch the entire news conference online as well. (Unfortunately, you cannot hear the reporters’ questions, but only the governor’s answers.)

The budget has record spending on K-12 public schools ($6.1 billion) and health care ($8.9 billion), the largest share of the budget. In terms of the General Fund — the portion of the budget entirely funded by Maryland taxes without federal funds — 48 cents go to education, 25 cents go to health, 11 cents go to public safety (mostly prisons), and 16 cents are spent on the rest of the budget.

budget highlights coverHere are some highlights that put a different spin on a budget of $39,224,000,000 and some preliminary fact-checking on claims made in the PowerPoint.

  • $9 billion in cuts? Really?

The governor emphasized “$9.1 billion in cumulative cuts to state spending.”

If O’Malley has cut $9 billion over the last seven years, how come this proposed budget for fiscal 2015 is almost $10 billion higher than the first budget he proposed for fiscal 2008?

“A lot of these cuts were cuts to spending growth, but a lot of that growth we intended,” O’Malley finally said.

O’Malley did make cuts to many programs, and 5,800 positions were eliminated from the executive branch, although most were vacant. The budget largely grew in money sent to the counties for public schools, and to health providers to take care of low income residents. Higher education spending also grew, slowing tuition growth, but state universities now employ over 3,000 more people.

  •  Eliminating the structural deficit

“Eliminating the structural deficit by FY 2017,” O’Malley claims.

The structural deficit is the difference between projected revenues and projected spending based on mandated formulas, entitlement programs such as Medicaid, salary increases and higher costs for gas, utilities and the like. The budget can’t be balanced unless mandated spending increases for programs such as education and health care are cut, but these are generally cuts in growth, not cuts in actual spending from year to year.

Gov. O'Malley shows progress on structural deficit at news conference.

Gov. O’Malley shows progress on structural deficit at news conference.

This is the last budget O’Malley will submit, so he can’t very well promise anything two years after he leaves office. The Department of Budget and Management will prepare much of next year’s budget for the next governor, but that governor will have the final say.

The legislature had thought the structural deficit was close to being cured in this year’s budget. But reduced revenues and unexpected costs dashed those hopes.

  • Pension funding cut

Before Maryland Reporter asked him about it, O’Malley did not mention that one of the chief ways he balanced this year’s budget and the next was by capping the annual reinvestment of pension reform savings achieved in 2011.

“You may recall the largest public employee march” to protest pension changes in 2011, O’Malley said. The rising costs of pensions “was not sustainable.”

When cuts to benefits and increases in employee contributions were passed in 2011, the state agreed to put an additional $300 million a year into the state pension system. That was cut to $200 million this year and now also in the proposed budget, allowing $172 million in “spending reductions” to be used for other programs.

Gov. Martin O'Malley was smiling as he presented the last of his eight budgets, with Budget Secretary Eloise Foster and Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown.

Gov. Martin O’Malley was smiling as he presented the last of his eight budgets, with Budget Secretary Eloise Foster and Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown.

As a result, the pension fund will take an additional year to reach 80% funding of all the pensions promised, pushing that target from 2024 to 2025.

“We believe that is prudent step to take,” O’Malley said.

Another $164 million in “spending reductions” was achieved through “favorable trends in employee & retiree health costs,” including more favorable contracts with insurers and better cost containment.

  • Diverting money from special funds

The proposed fiscal 2015 budget continues to be balanced by taking money out of “special funds” generated by “dedicated taxes” such as the real estate transfer tax. In next year’s budget, $69 million is being shifted from the transfer tax intended to fund open space and farmland preservation; this money will instead be put into the general fund to pay for other programs. That money will be “backfilled” with bonds.

That’s like a family taking money out of a special savings account for college to pay for everyday expenses, then financing tuition with a home equity loan.

Over the last five years, O’Malley has floated $1.4 billion in bonds to replace money taken out of special funds. All that money must be repaid over 15 years with interest.

  • Complies with affordability guidelines

O’Malley claimed: “Eight consecutive budgets in compliance with Spending Affordability Guidelines.”

This appears to be technically true, but the recommendations of the legislature’s Spending Affordability Committee have been a moving target, applying to different portions of the budget. In most years, the target was a percentage of growth in the budget; the last three years the target was a reduction in the structural deficit.

In December, the Spending Affordability Committee recommended 4% growth in the budget as defined by the committee (not the total funds budget) and a reduction in the structural deficit of $125 million. The governor said he met both goals, coming in at 3.73% growth and reducing the structural deficit by $174 million.

However, the total funds budget of $39.2 billion, which includes federal funds and special funds, grows by 5%.

About The Author

Len Lazarick

Len Lazarick was the founding editor and publisher of and is currently the president of its nonprofit corporation and chairman of its board He was formerly the State House bureau chief of the daily Baltimore Examiner from its start in April 2006 to its demise in February 2009. He was a copy editor on the national desk of the Washington Post for eight years before that, and has spent decades covering Maryland politics and government.


  1. jettie conn

    my husband required Cobra Medical Coverage Continuation Form several days ago and came across a business that has lots of sample forms . If you are looking for Cobra Medical Coverage Continuation Form too , here’s a

  2. md observer

    Gov. O’Malley says 8 consecutive budgets have complied with spending affordability committee recommendations. Maybe so; but
    his budget does not comply with key recommendations in the legislature’s Office of Policy Analysis (November 2013) report recommending several borrowing constraints urgently needed to counter the effect of growing debt service and post-retirement
    benefits (pensions in particular) that are and will be consuming General fund resources at the rate of over 7% annually.

    Of all the bullets in his 17 slides, I dispute about half. It’s clear O’Malley favors conveying biased half-truths in preference to
    objective assessments. Len is too kind to label this behavior “spin.”

  3. Steven Davis

    It’s funny how he talks about college costs and how they put money towards it to keep the costs of college from going up when the state just again announced that the price of state colleges were going up by 4%. If I’m not mistaken, it’s the 5th time in 7 years that they’ve raised the price of tuition. Does this guy just assume that none of us are paying attention to the B.S that he’s shoveling?

    • Ellie Diegelmann

      As the Everly Brothers once sang: DREEEEEAM, DREAM, DREAM, DREEAM! DREEEEEAM…. Martin’s complied nicely, huh! (…as in his own infamous DREAM Act, giving instate tuition discounts to “undocumented citizens” (aka illegal aliens))

  4. abby_adams

    Martin’s done it again! His magical math has resulted in saving us from even MORE tax hikes! Of course, we aren’t supposed to notice that he’s running us into debt that we’ll be paying for long after he is out of office. Get ready for higher state property taxes people to cover Martin’s solution to this state’s overspending problem. The progressive agenda rules in Annapolis. Can legalized pot & the tax revenues generated be far behind?

    • Lady Mustang

      As soon as my hubby retires (and since we were responsible managers of our money and have saved) he can retire at 55 and we’re off to Florida, no state income tax!!!!! I quit working years ago, but had I kept working, we’d be there now!!! Had 5 years down there and it is awesome!

  5. joe

    Legalization and taxation of prostitution will be proposed after legalization of POT, by the next Democratic governor in order to raise more “revenue” for “investment” (tax and spend). Don’t worry the state will screw-that-up just like the Maryland Healthcare Exchange!

    • Lady Mustang

      I think with the state exchange debacle, the R has a chance!!!! At least I’m hoping for that kind of change!

  6. Rural Resident

    What happened with “highway user fees” rebated back to Counties & municipalities ?

    • abby_adams

      Only if you live in one of the Dem friendly areas. Otherwise, just pay up, shut up or move if you don’t like it!

      • Lady Mustang

        Exactly my plan, get the hell out!!!!

  7. Lady Mustang

    O”Malley and all his minions are corrupt and spin the numbers to make him look like a tax cutter. I grew up here, moved away in 2005 and returned in 2010. $4 to cross the Key Bridge??? $6 to cross the Nice Bridge?? Key Bridge was $.25 at the beginning. Rain Tax??? We are the only state in the nation that taxes rain. What an A**sholes he looks like! This guy will never make it to 1600 Penn Ave, he can’t even run a state. Larry Hogan is who I’m backing. Hopefully we can get OweMalley’s tax hikes repealed!!!

    • Ed

      I don’t disagree with the gist of you post, but using the toll numbers is not a good argument. Have you seen what Delaware charges to use its little 20-mile slice of I-95 PLUS the cost to cross THEIR bay? Crossed the George Washington or Tappan Zee bridges lately? Maryland’s tolls are in no way out of line with other tolls up and down the East Coast.

      • abby_adams

        Yes, but what is really happening with the toll fees? Ever travel across the Nice Bridge? It ain’t so “nice” on the MD side, great on the Virginia side though! The point isn’t that taxpayers object to reasonable fees & tolls to fund those departments that said revenues are supposed to fund. It’s paying the fees & tolls only to have O’Malley & the legislature raid these dedicated funds then demand even more $$ from users. As for Delaware, that’s how they make $$. The locals NEVER use the toll roads. As for NJ & NY, it’s been a long time since I experienced the fleecing for using their roads in a long time.

        • joe

          Another $2 billion of new spending in the governor’s 2015 maryland budget was unnecessary and this money will eventually come out of somebody’s pocket, e.g. middleclass taxpayers and/or small business.

      • Lady Mustang

        I hate all the increases (taxes) imposed, tried to pick an easy one for low information Marylanders! something they can relate too. He has increased all auto fees, registration, tags, etc. gas tax hikes, etc. it really pisses me off when I see all this construction on roads that don’t really need it (southern Maryland), like they absolutely had to increase my taxes for that. I’m also one of those big bad smokers, but will not give the state a dime, so I cross the nice bridge into VA once a month. No charge coming into Maryland, and gas is at least .20-.25 cents cheaper per gallon, so I also make sure I fill up. I’m sure with VA now having a D Governor he’ll up the cigarette tax ASAP!

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