ANNAPOLIS – Lawmakers began picking apart Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s $25.9 billion budget Thursday, while analysts said the document projects an increase over this year’s budget greater than previously thought.
Naturally, not all legislators were as upbeat about the budget as Ehrlich was on Wednesday, when he unveiled its beefy increases in education funding and promised not to raise taxes.
As submitted, Ehrlich’s budget is a 6.9 percent, or $1.67 billion, increase over the current fiscal year, rather than the reported 4.2 percent, according to the nonpartisan Department of Legislative Services.
“It’s the biggest budget we’ve ever had in the state of Maryland,” said Delegate Sheila Hixson, D-Montgomery, chairwoman of the House Ways and Means Committee. “He complained about Democratic governors raising it percentage-wise — he raised it a larger percentage than any of them.”
The Legislative Services report also estimated that the budget gap would widen to $864 million in fiscal year 2007 if spending continues to outpace revenues. How Ehrlich’s budget would handle that remains to be seen.
Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus, R-Somerset, said fixing the budget gap would take time, but that the proposed budget is a step toward that.
“The reality is we’re not doing it all at one time. Fixing the structural deficit in one bite requires either Draconian cuts so that nobody’s happy,” Stoltzfus said, “or you have to increase revenues with taxes that people also feel upset about.”
The budget also cuts $10 million from a fund for private colleges and universities, as well as $10 million from anti-smoking and cancer-prevention programs.
Three-quarters, or more than $163 million, of revenue gleaned whenever real estate changes hands — called the transfer tax — would be moved to the general fund instead of going toward land preservation.
The governor’s budget does not address a number of issues, according to the report. One of them is the increase in insurance costs for state employees. Another is funding to assist school districts with higher operating costs, a part of the Thornton education law that Ehrlich has said is optional.
Hixson called Ehrlich’s 2 percent cost-of-living raise for state employees “good P.R.” but meaningless, saying it would not cover their increased cost of health insurance.
While Ehrlich proposed numerous increases in funding to health care services in the budget, he cut the Senior Prescription Drug Program.
Administered by CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, the program allows needy seniors on Medicare to receive drug benefits of up to $1,100 annually at a cost of $10 per month. Its absence from the budget has advocacy groups howling, including Health Care For All!, a Baltimore coalition that supports universal health care.
“Cutting programs that keep our seniors healthy is counterproductive and shortsighted,” said Glenn Schneider, executive director of Health Care For All!, in a press release issued by his coalition and United Seniors of Maryland. “Cutting this program is akin to a tax increase on seniors who depend on this program.”
Capital News Service reporter Ryan Basen contributed to this report.