By Rolando Garcia
ANNAPOLIS – The House of Delegates approved a measure Tuesday restricting the budget-cutting powers of the Board of Public Works, the latest skirmish in the General Assembly’s war for budget authority with Gov. Robert Ehrlich.
The bill would reduce the amount of spending the board is permitted to cut from Assembly-authorized budgets from 25 to 10 percent, and reductions would only be allowed when the state is facing a deficit. Currently, the board can cut any spending under any circumstances.
Last year after the Assembly adjourned, the panel, which consists of the governor, comptroller and treasurer, slashed more than $200 million from the budget to close a shortfall.
The move still rankles many lawmakers, who say the cuts were excessive.
“The governor and legislators make laws, not the Board of Public Works,” said House Appropriations Chairman Norman Conway, D-Wicomico, the bill’s sponsor.
The $188 million in leftover funds from the 2004 fiscal year prove the reductions were largely unnecessary, Conway said.
The bill would also prevent the board from cutting certain programs below mandated minimum funding levels and require 30 days notice on proposed spending decreases. The board would also be required to hold public hearings on the changes.
“(The board) should not be able to cut billions without public input or any semblance of daylight,” said House Majority Leader Kumar Barve, D-Montgomery.
Ehrlich opposes the bill, said spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver, but has not made a decision on whether to veto it.
The bill passed 90-48 on a mostly party line vote, just enough to override a veto.
Republicans charged the bill was a partisan power grab by the Democratic-controlled Assembly.
“This authority is essential to the governor in fulfilling his constitutional duty to balance the budget,” said Delegate Gail Bates, R-Howard, adding the bill was “politics at its worst.”
House Minority Leader George Edwards, R-Garrett, said the bill would tie the governor’s hands during a fiscal crunch and pointed out the board, under then-Gov. William Donald Schafer, a Democrat, made even more draconian cuts during the early 1990’s budget crisis.
“I don’t remember my colleagues saying then we should change the process,” Edwards said.
The public notice requirements could impose a crippling delay in averting fiscal disaster, said Schaefer, now the comptroller.
“(Legislators) have no idea what it’s like to be in an emergency,” Schaefer said. “You’ve got to make decisions fast, you can’t wait six or seven weeks while hearings drag on.”
Ehrlich barely staved off another move to weaken his budget authority last week after convincing four senators to switch their votes and defeat a proposed constitutional amendment that would have allowed the Assembly to move funds within the budget as long as total spending did not exceed the governor’s original request. Now, the Assembly can only cut from the governor’s spending plan.
Treasurer Nancy Kopp, who is chosen by the Assembly, has taken no position on the bill, said Deputy Treasurer Howard Freedlander, but after last year’s cuts said the Assembly should be more involved in the board’s budget-cutting process.