ANNAPOLIS – The full Senate met Friday to debate proposed budget changes, but there was no discussion of the $767 million shortfall the plan would leave for fiscal year 2004.
Next year’s General Assembly will still have to face more cuts, said Sen. Barbara Hoffman, D-Baltimore, chairwoman of the Budget and Taxation Committee.
Her committee developed the budget under constraints that allow General Assembly members only to cut the governor’s budget proposal. Their task was to reduce spending in order to close a projected $1.2 billion gap between revenues and expenditures.
They closed about a third of that gap by targeting one-time surplus funds and by making strategic cuts, Hoffman said.
“We knew it would take us two years to do this,” Hoffman said concerning the shortfall. “It would be too painful to do all at once,” she said.
The Senate plan will leave fiscal year 2004 with a $500 million to $800 million shortfall, depending on the economy, said budget analyst Warren Deschenaux.
Hoffman said lawmakers had to balance the need to get the budget straight with the need to provide services to the public.
Friday was the first day senators from outside her committee were allowed to offer changes to the document.
Most senators offered measures to secure more program cash, such as delaying the last phase of the 2 percent tax cut for two years – a move that had been proposed by the governor but opposed by budget leaders.
“The fact is we have lots of commitments to citizens (besides the tax cut),” said Sen. Brian Frosh, D-Montgomery, the sponsor of the amendment.
Frosh estimated the delay would cost the average family of four about $1.50 per week. He said the tax benefit didn’t total much individually, but in aggregate could provide needed funding for many programs, such as the WIC children’s feeding program, higher education, mental health and alcohol and drug treatment.
Others said the estimated $165 million could easily fund the first phase of a school reform proposal known as the Thornton Commission report.
But Hoffman defended the tax cut.
When lawmakers temporarily raised taxes in 1991 to help with the budget shortfall, they promised they would reduce them later, she said. Instead, “we started to live out of our means,” Hoffman said.
“We are keeping our commitments,” she said.
The amendment was defeated, 35 to 8.
Another controversial amendment proposed saving money by limiting the number of state-funded abortions per woman.
“Abortions shouldn’t be used as a form of birth control,” said Sen. Norman Stone Jr., D-Baltimore County, the amendment’s sponsor.
Studies showed that 99 percent of Maryland abortions last year were performed for mental health reasons and that the amount spent in Maryland, $2.4 million, was four times the amount paid by all surrounding states combined, Stone said. The mental health stipulation that qualified women for state funding is being violated, he said. Hoffman opposed the move for several reasons, including the fact that it wouldn’t save money in the long run. She said more money should be put into family planning instead. Others questioned why abortions should be singled out for savings. Why not limit the funding to those with kidney problems who are advised not to drink but do anyway and have further complications, said Sen. Edward Kasemeyer, D-Arbutus.
“We ought to all be treated equally,” he said.
The amendment was defeated by a tie vote.
Other changes were easily accepted, including a move to use excess lottery revenue to fund Thornton proposals and a measure to return horse bettors’ money to racing purses, since the construction projects that it had been reserved for were cancelled.
But, Hoffman said excess lottery funds were already incorporated into the budget, so none would be left for Thornton money this year.
The Senate plans to vote on the amended document Monday night and next week the House will propose their budget changes. Once differences between the Senate and House versions are worked out, the budget becomes law.