ANNAPOLIS – Gov. Robert Ehrlich boosted state spending by 4.2 percent in the proposed $25.9 billion 2006 state budget he released Wednesday.
The budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 would increase total spending by $1.1 billion. Elementary and secondary education won the greatest increases.
The budget would increase K-12 funding by $428 million, or 9 percent from the current fiscal year, to $5.2 billion.
Spending on health services would receive a $270 million boost and would still comprise the largest chunk of general fund expenditures, at 25 percent.
The budget calls for a $67 million increase in higher education funding, including a $27 million increase in need-based financial aid, according to the governor’s budget overview.
Local governments would receive $5.1 billion in total aid from the state, a $474 million increase over the current appropriation.
Ehrlich said tax increases would not be necessary. Projected increases in revenue would come instead from an improving state economy.
The largest portion of state revenues, that from individual income taxes, was expected to increase by 6 percent in the current fiscal year and by 7.4 percent in 2006. Sales tax revenues are expected to grow as well, the administration said in its budget highlights.
But questions are just beginning to arise as to which programs will be cut and which will receive a windfall.
“It’s ups and downs. It’s a very difficult time being in government,” said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert. “Some got the goods, and others got the shaft.”
Lawmakers will now set out to determine which programs fall into which of Miller’s categories.
Before the General Assembly began earlier this month, the governor’s Department of Budget and Management asked state agencies to assume that in the 2006 fiscal year, they would receive 88 percent of their current funding.
Ehrlich on Wednesday defended the request. He said the goal was to determine which programs were most successful in achieving their goals rather than measuring them by the amount of money they receive. He maintained that the 88 percent target has been misinterpreted by lawmakers and the media.
“In a couple cases that was a correct conclusion, and in the majority of cases that was an incorrect and is an incorrect conclusion,” Ehrlich said. “In fact, in a number of our agencies, the number for this year is more than 100 percent” of current base allocations.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Norman Conway, D-Wicomico, said he wanted to see how the governor’s budget deals with a projected $311 million deficit in the general fund.
He said he was also concerned that the proposed budget is “significantly above” the guidelines prescribed last year by the joint Spending Affordability Committee.
The Maryland Constitution requires the governor to submit a balanced budget by the third Wednesday of January. The General Assembly can then begin trimming — but not shifting or adding — money from government programs.
What the proposed budget will really mean for Maryland won’t be known for several days as the General Assembly begins to digest the details. The Senate Budget and Taxation Committee and the House Appropriations Committee will hold a hearing on the matter on Monday.
Until Wednesday, the Ehrlich administration had withheld details of its budget proposal from lawmakers as well as from the number-crunchers at the non-partisan Department of Legislative Services. Democratic lawmakers were annoyed.
“This puts us in a mode where we really have to do catch-up,” said Sen. Majority Leader Nathaniel McFadden, D-Baltimore. “It doesn’t give you time to really analyze it as quickly and as expeditiously as you need to.”
The House Minority Leader, Delegate George Edwards, R-Garrett, said releasing details in advance would have set off premature criticism before administration agreed on a final budget.
“It doesn’t bother me that the governor hasn’t whipped out all this stuff to everybody,” Edwards said.