ANNAPOLIS – With the state facing a projected $1 billion deficit and advocates complaining that basic services will lack funds under Gov. Parris N. Glendening’s budget plan, some lawmakers said this could be the year they win more power over writing the budget.
Now legislators may only cut the governor’s proposals. This procedure creates problems when the governor doesn’t allocate enough money to areas the General Assembly values, including, this year, mental health and Medicaid.
Analysts estimate Medicaid needs $100 million more for the 2003 fiscal year and that the mental health system is underfunded by $70 million.
Lawmakers worry about the lack of funding for mental health and Medicaid, but there’s little they can do about it, said Sen. Patrick Hogan, D-Montgomery, sponsor of a bill that would ask voters to give the General Assembly more budget authority.
The constitutional amendment would allow legislators to add funding and shift money between programs as long as they stay within the total limit proposed by the governor. The governor could veto individual appropriations lawmakers changed, but the General Assembly would also have power to overturn the veto.
The bill was heard Wednesday by the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.
Maryland is the only state that does not grant its Legislature such powers.
The General Assembly originally lost much of its budgetary power when it ran up a $2 million deficit in 1916. Lawmakers ceded the power to the governor in order to more easily track appropriations going awry.
Glendening and some lawmakers have said the present system is fine. Previous efforts to shift authority have failed.
Last year an identical Senate bill failed to gain the necessary three-fifths vote to pass as a constitutional amendment.
Hogan said some lawmakers feared the move would give too much power to the budget committees.
“The process we have in place works and works well,” Glendening said after a Board of Public Works meeting, pointing to the state’s consistent ability to get a AAA bond rating – a rating that allows the state to get low interest rates on its bonds. Such a rating is only granted to states that meet high standards of fiscal responsibility.
The state received its lowest interest rate ever Wednesday – 4.03 percent on a $312 million loan.
“If it isn’t broke, why try to fix it,” Glendening said.
But many lawmakers disagree.
“I do think (the system) is broken,” said Sen. Robert Neall, D-Anne Arundel said. Only a “mechanical restoration of balance” of budgetary powers could fix it, he said.
Neall was an adamant opponent of the legislation for many years, he told the panel, but this tight fiscal year changed his mind.
Several business and advocacy groups backed the measure at its Wednesday hearing.
Many said the current process was undemocratic.
If you need some money for a program, you have to persuade the governor to put it in the budget instead of being able to go to the legislators, said Diane McComb of The Maryland Association of Community Services for Persons with Developmental Disabilities.
All that power should not be in one person’s hands, she said.
If the bill passes the committee, it will move to the Senate floor for a vote, where sponsors hope the lame duck governor has lost some of his past influence on senators.
“Getting (the bill) out of this committee won’t be a problem,” said Chairwoman Barbara Hoffman, D-Baltimore. “Getting it out of the Senate will be the problem.”