By Rolando Garcia
ANNAPOLIS – The Senate gave preliminary approval to a constitutional amendment that would curb the governor’s vast budget power by allowing the General Assembly to move funds within the budget, as long as total spending does not increase.
The move reignites a long-standing struggle between the Assembly and a governor who wields greater constitutional authority than most other state executives.
“The governor still writes the budget, we just want to be able to edit a little,” said Sen. Patrick Hogan, D-Montgomery, the bill’s sponsor.
The amendment would bring Maryland in line with most other states where the Legislature can alter the governor’s proposed budget, Hogan said.
Rejected by the Senate three times in the last 10 years, the bill cleared a procedural hurdle on a 30-16 vote, garnering the supermajority needed for a constitutional amendment, and final passage is expected Thursday.
The House version of the amendment already has enough cosponsors to pass. If it clears the House, it will go before voters in November.
Now, the Assembly can only cut spending. If it wants to increase funding for a particular program, it must cut from another, then suggest the governor reallocate the money to the favored program. If the governor agrees, he sends the Assembly a supplemental budget.
The process is cumbersome, Hogan said, because the supplemental budget often comes laden with other provisions the governor wants passed.
The amendment would allow the Assembly to change funding for line-items within the governor’s proposed budget, without changing the overall total. The governor, however, still could veto the revisions.
Opponents warned it could lead to runaway spending by the Assembly.
Allowing lawmakers to add spending items would drag out the budget process and create a bevy of new pet programs, said Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, R-Somerset.
It is no coincidence the Democratic-controlled Senate passed the measure under a Republican governor while rejecting it when Democrats were in office, Stoltzfus added.
“Some (Democratic lawmakers) don’t feel they have the access to the governor that they used to have,” Stoltzfus said.
Sen. Nancy Jacobs, R-Harford, said the Assembly would be inundated with new demands from special interest groups if it assumes more budget-writing authority.
“Every group will want us to put a budget line in for them,” Jacobs said.
The Senate vote was largely along party lines. Two Republicans broke with Gov. Robert Ehrlich to support the measure, and four Democrats opposed it.
Sen. Richard Colburn, R-Dorchester, voted for the bill. He said some Republicans who supported the amendment in the past were reluctant to buck the party leadership.
“The message was clear – the governor doesn’t like this legislation and if you’re a cosponsor, remove your name from it,” Colburn said.
Colburn is no fan of party lines right now, he said. He was unsuccessful in his primary challenge to U.S. Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville, after much of the GOP establishment opposed his conservative insurgency.
With such limited budget authority, the Assembly cannot be an equal branch of government, Colburn said.
Sen. David Brinkley, R-Frederick, and Sen. John Hafer, R-Garrett, originally cosponsored the bill, but voted against it.
The amendment would put too much power in the Assembly’s two budget committees, Hafer said.
The budget typically dominates the legislative session, more so this year with a projected shortfall of $1 billion for 2006. In his $23.8 billion budget proposal, Ehrlich closed the 2005 fiscal year gap of $800 million with spending cuts and one-time revenue sources, blamed for the future budget problems, while increasing funding for education and health care.