ANNAPOLIS – The House of Delegates Wednesday approved a budget plan that cuts property taxes and provides money for public-school construction.
The lower chamber’s 134-0 vote is the first round in what looks to be a boxing match with the Senate, which is set to consider the matter Thursday.
The Democratic-shaped budget proposal could undercut the appeal of legalized slot-machine gambling by meeting this year’s $250 million school-construction benchmark, set by a study panel.
The House budget also would return the state property tax to 8 cents per $100 of assessed value, the level it was before Gov. Robert Ehrlich raised it by a nickel to balance the budget in 2003. The changed would mean an annual savings of $48 for a house worth $100,000, for example. Rising property values make the cut affordable for now, budget analysts and House Democrats have said.
But the Ehrlich administration has called the House school construction plan and property tax cut nearsighted and little more than a political “gimmick.”
Republicans said cutting property taxes this year would force Ehrlich to raise them again next year — when he’s expected to run for re-election. And they pointed out that the House school-construction plan provides money only for the fiscal year beginning July 1.
Last year, a task force led by state Treasurer Nancy Kopp said $250 million is needed for construction each year for the next eight years. Ehrlich’s slots proposal would yield $100 million a year in extra school-construction money.
But lawmakers of both parties now say slots legislation is moribund because the chambers have failed to agree on both the number and location of the slots.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, said the delegates’ changes to the budget are not realistic.
“I think their heart’s in the right place,” Miller said. “It’s just a question of whether we can afford $250 million at this point in time without jeopardizing Program Open Space and other items, including money taken from capital projects and higher education.”
Most of the school construction money would come from $157 million Ehrlich allocated in his capital budget. The rest would be clipped from other capital budget items.
Miller said his chamber will likely stick closer to Ehrlich’s budget than its across-the-hall counterpart.
“The House has taken a more partisan approach in terms of the budget-making process than I think the Senate will,” Miller said.
House Republicans and the governor have criticized some of the state job cuts, which they said were politically motivated. Democrats defended the eliminations as part of recommendations by the nonpartisan Department of Legislative Services.
Despite their criticisms, House Minority Leader George Edwards, R-Garrett, and Minority Whip Anthony O’Donnell, R-Calvert, both conceded that there was “more good than bad” to their chamber’s final product.
The governor’s original budget plan would have eliminated $30.6 million in grants to 10 counties and Baltimore City for their large electricity-generating plants. But the House Appropriations Committee instead chose to phase out the grant fund, leaving $6.1 million for fiscal 2006.
The committee also restored $11.8 million cut in the Ehrlich budget from Medicaid prescription-drug assistance. That fund helps adults who don’t quite qualify for the federal-state health program for the poor.
Overall, the committee cut $43 million in state Medicaid money from programs that are to become obsolete with last year’s creation of a federal prescription drug benefit for seniors, said Deputy Majority Whip John Bohanan Jr., D-St. Mary’s, chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on health.
The House also cut $2.9 million in state funding for improvements to Maryland’s voting systems as part of the federal Help America Vote Act of 2002.
Other notable program cuts include:
– $9.2 million from upgrades to the state’s computer and information systems.
– $60 million from Maryland’s contribution to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit system.