ANNAPOLIS – Maryland agencies will have to tighten their belts to confront the downturn in the nation’s economy said lawmakers at Wednesday’s Senate Budget and Taxation Committee briefing.
In the briefing on department shortfalls for fiscal 2001, Sen. Robert R. Neall, D-Anne Arundel, admonished agency heads for not being more responsible with their allocated funds. With the state entering troubling economic times, he said, state departments are practicing “very bad habits.”
“In fat times, they could do lots of things that were not considered core, but in lean times the same actions cannot be taken,” Neall said.
Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, D-Baltimore, committee chairwoman, singled out the Department of Human Resources for “not valuing the budget process.” The agency spent funds for an unapproved program that Hoffman agreed was admirable, but the agency still violated the process.
“They view this process as just a formality. Well, they will see it is not,” she said.
The briefing was to address the shortfalls of fiscal 2001 and for agency heads to suggest ways to curb problems. Much of what was discussed took place before the economic downturn following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
In response to the economic ripple effect from the attacks, Gov. Parris N. Glendening imposed $205 million in spending restrictions. The measures cover soaring security costs and plunging revenues. Heightened security across the state has cost $6 million, a cost that is expected to grow to $24 million by the end of the fiscal year on June 30, 2002.
High energy costs last year, from skyrocketing natural gas prices, resulted in shortfalls for some agencies well before the fallout from Sept. 11.
The biggest shortfall came in the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which will start fiscal 2002 with a $173 million deficit. More people enrolled in entitlement programs than anticipated, contributing to the department’s budget problems.
Medicaid enrollment, for example, was expected to drop to 428,000 and now is at 462,000.
While some departments were reprimanded for overspending, certain departments were recognized for not receiving enough funding.
“I am not sure we are being as generous to some of our state agencies as we should,” said Neall, citing the Department of Corrections and the Office of the Public Defender.
Because Corrections operates facilities all day every day it needs special attention from the committee, said Neall.
The defender’s office, which is routinely underfunded, is defending clients at double the national standard for caseload for lawyers. In order to escape budget problems, said Public Defender Stephen Harris, he often keeps positions open until the situation becomes critical.
“We do not have a lot of flexibility to do our jobs,” said Harris. “We operate on how many arrests are made.” Approval for budget deficiencies will not occur until the General Assembly convenes in January. – 30 – CNS-11-07-01