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mail - editorial - 4/18/01

April 17, 2001

Maryland assembly eyes more power over budget



Can members of the Maryland General Assembly trust themselves with more power over the state's budget? That's the question legislative leaders will try to answer over the next nine months, as they study ways to curb the governor's near-total control of state spending. Given this year's budget process, it's worth a look, but we'll need more detail before we can declare this idea a winner.

In Maryland, the governor submits the state's budget to the legislature, which can cut it, but cannot shift what's been cut to any other program. That means that if someone has a pet project, he or she must win the governor's favor to get it funded.

To control state spending, the legislature has set up something called the "spending affordability limit," which is supposed to ensure that state spending doesn't grow faster than the revenues expected to fund it.

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This year, despite projections that revenues would dip, Glendening filed a budget exceeding that limit, forcing lawmakers to cut millions. Then lawmakers put millions more in spending on "hold" until it's clear whether the economy will recover from its recent slowdown.

Partly in reaction to that, and to concerns that basic health care wasn't adequately funded this year, the state senate attempted to amend the constitution, but fell four votes short.

The new measure to be studied would still have the governor submit the budget. Lawmakers could increase certain items, as long as the total didn't exceed the total of the budget originally submitted by the governor. The governor would also get a line-item veto over any legislative additions.

Would such a change give the state's most populous areas an even greater advantage than they have now? Would there be fewer incentives to resist spending? That's what some conservative lawmakers fear.

What is clear is that passing a budget would be more complicated and depend more on political horse-trading that it does at present. The rural areas of the state need some assurance the change won't give the metro-area counties even more leverage over their rural counterparts than they have now.

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