ANNAPOLIS – A growing body of Maryland senators wants to give the General Assembly the power to rearrange spending priorities in the state’s budget, bringing Maryland in line with the other 49 states.
The issue has been before the General Assembly 13 times, according to Sen. Patrick J. Hogan, D-Montgomery, sponsor of the current bill, a constitutional amendment to change the budgetary process.
“It is not a radical change,” he said during Wednesday debate on the floor. “Forty-nine other states have done this; it has not blown the ceiling in those other states.”
Although the bill’s subject matter is not new, it takes on special significance in light of Gov. Parris Glendening’s record-breaking 2002 budget.
The size of the governor’s $21.3 million operating budget has sparked some controversy. Some lawmakers are worried because the budget exceeds the Legislature’s recommended spending limit by more than $200 million.
Sen. Barbara Hoffman, Budget and Taxation Committee chairwoman, urged the Senate to adopt the amendment.
“Bring us all into the 21st century,” she said.
Under the amendment, the governor would still have sole responsibility for proposing the budget, but lawmakers could add or shift funding between programs. Currently, legislators can only cut the budget.
The governor would need to consult with legislative leaders when compiling the budget if the amendment becomes law, Hoffman said.
“It doesn’t happen today because there’s no reason for it to happen today,” she said.
Support has been building for the bill, which has 33 sponsors and is almost certain to pass the Senate. Only 29 votes are needed for approval.
A similar bill with 21 sponsors is before the House of Delegates. If the bill passes with the required three-fifths majority in both houses, the amendment could go before voters on the November 2002 ballot.
However, Glendening doesn’t support the amendment, said Raquel Guillory, his spokeswoman, making a veto likely.
The amendment is an important step for the Legislature as an institution, said Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr., D-Montgomery, who introduced similar legislation in the House in 1994.
“I think it’s an action that’s long overdue,” he said.
The key issue is the Legislature’s role in the budgetary process, not problems with the current budget or governor, said Hogan and Van Hollen.
The amendment will insure an equal balance of power for all the governmental branches, Hogan said.
“We’ve been cautious for 85 years under this system,” he said. “This really does deny us rights as representatives of our constituents.”
Sen. Robert Neall, D-Anne Arundel, agreed, calling for a more meaningful role for the Legislature in setting fiscal policy.
“This isn’t about power. This is about balance,” Neall said. “This body can handle the responsibility of sharing budgetary power.”
Some lawmakers who have been hesitant about changing the budgetary process in the past are supporting the bill.
“Last time, I voted against this bill,” said Sen. Thomas Bromwell, D- Baltimore County, adding he would vote for it this year.
A few senators, however, are still skeptical about the need for the proposed change.
“This is going to make it harder to hold down the growth of state spending,” said Sen. Martin Madden, R-Howard, a critic of the governor’s 2002 budget.
Madden is concerned the Legislature will have to fight off lawmakers seeking to add their pet projects to the budget.
Additional projects require additional revenue, which might mean tax increases, Madden said, adding the amendment might also increase pressure to produce more supplementary budgets.
“Let’s not change a system that has worked well,” he said.
Maryland’s status as the only state with a Legislature unable to add or rearrange budgetary funds is a compelling argument to Sen. Christopher McCabe, R-Montgomery, but he wasn’t sure how he would vote on the bill.
The amendment might require the part-time legislators spend additional time to learn enough to keep up with new authority over the budget, McCabe said.
“We’re still a citizen Legislature, and that puts us at a structural disadvantage,” he said.
Neall said past legislative budget initiatives, including the balanced budget amendment, have succeeded, and so can this proposed amendment.
“The time has come and the time is now.”