ANNAPOLIS – During his announcement of a proposed $29.6 billion election year budget Tuesday, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. emphasized his administration’s willingness to “try something different.”
Ehrlich certainly achieved that goal.
For a change, the conservative Republican governor found himself under criticism from Democrats for overspending in his fiscal year 2007 spending plan, which House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, said calls for the largest budget increase in Maryland history.
Busch, leader of the Democrats’ substantial majority on the House of Delegates, said he had been prepared to give Ehrlich “some leeway . . . knowing he would spend a lot of money in an election year. Never did we think he would spend this amount.”
But in his mid-morning presentation of the budget, Ehrlich, flanked by his budget secretary and lieutenant governor, downplayed any talk of profligate spending and said he was committed to providing important services.
“We will not go on a spending binge during [economic] recovery,” Ehrlich said. “We will, however, fund our priorities.”
The Ehrlich proposal does not raise either the income or sales taxes, and provides for a 15 percent reduction in the state property tax.
“We were not going to raise taxes and have not,” Ehrlich said.
Ehrlich maintained that despite the considerable budget increase of $2.1 billion, his proposal was “responsible.” He pointed to the 10 percent of the general fund dedicated to reserve money as a safety net that will protect against future recessions.
Predictably, education and healthcare account for the largest chunks of the budget. The governor said the slower rate of growth of the state’s Medicaid program, which increased 8.5 percent this year, is down from Ehrlich’s first year, when he remembers it being over 10 percent. “We’ve gotten a hold of – we haven’t solved – the double digit increases in Medicaid,” Ehrlich said.
Education spending accounted for 42 percent of the budget.
This included a $172 million funding increase for higher education that is projected to provide need-based financial aid to almost 3,400 additional students.
Grade schools in Maryland received $462 million more than last year. The 11.5 percent increase in this area is the largest in the state’s history, according to Ehrlich’s budget documents.
Officially, the administration said its spending proposal amounts to $28.3 billion. But this figure does not include the $644 million set aside in the so-called Rainy Day Fund or the $670 million reserved for the budget to come after this one.
“He’s shoveling cash out the car door to get re-elected,” House majority leader Kumar Barve, D – Montgomery, told the Associated Press.
Cecilia Januszkiewicz, Ehrlich’s secretary of budget and management, said she did not know off-hand whether the $2.1 billion budget increase was the largest in state history, as the Democrats claimed, but conceded that it was possible.
Nonetheless, she challenged Democratic criticism, insisting that every bit of spending was important.
“What do they find fruitless in this budget?” she said.
Democratic criticism was echoed by Richard Falknor, executive vice president of the conservative Maryland Taxpayer’s Association, who referred to Ehrlich’s budget as a “staggering number.” “I’m afraid we have an old fashioned big government administration,” Falknor said.” While Falknor said he still prefers Ehrlich to the Democrats, “this doesn’t mean that he can’t do a lot better.”