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General Assembly approved very little

April 14, 2003|by LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

Maryland lawmakers spent the past three months debating various ways to balance the state budget through legalizing slot machines or raising taxes and fees.

When the session drew to a close last Monday, scarcely anything had been approved. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich promised to veto the corporate tax increases that did pass.

As a result, a significant portion of the state's budget cuts are being passed on to local governments, where elected officials will now have to address the problem closer to home.

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State lawmakers followed through on their promise to increase education funding in fiscal 2004, boosting money to Washington County Public Schools by more than $6 million.

But they slashed other state money the county had expected to use for highway maintenance and other services.

Ehrlich's budget had $133 million in cuts to local government. By the end of the session, those cuts deepened to $185 million, said David S. Bliden, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties.

Officials have not calculated the exact impact on Washington County.

More cuts are likely to come as Ehrlich finds ways to make up for vetoing a corporate tax package that would have raised $130 million.

"We're holding our breath to see what's coming," Washington County Administrator Rodney Shoop said.

County commissioners are sifting through $143.3 million in budget requests and plan to propose a budget to take to public hearing by May 6.

"It's tough for us to put a budget together if we have no idea," Commissioner Doris Nipps said.

The Washington County Board of Education, which receives about 60 percent of the county budget, has asked for a $7.1 million increase from the county.

The Washington County Delegation passed legislation this session to give the county the ability to charge transfer and excise taxes. The measure was sold as a way to raise money for education.

But even if the commissioners enact those taxes July 1, the county is not likely to be able to afford the entire request, Shoop said.

Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, said the taxes will have the long-term benefit of making sure developers pay for growth even though they might not pay off for the county right away.

"Hopefully, it will soften the blow to local governments. It might not be as much of a step forward as we had hoped," said Shank, who largely authored the legislation as a compromise between anti-growth, real estate and home builder interests.

Other counties besides Washington County are having to raise taxes to make up for state cuts, Bliden said.

State cuts are hurting municipal governments as well.

The City of Hagerstown expects to receive $132,000 less from the state, City Administrator Bruce Zimmerman said.

Facing a $2 million deficit in the upcoming budget year, the city is looking at making $1.4 million in cuts to employee benefits and wages and building projects.

The city also is considering a modest 1.5-cent property tax increase that would cost the average homeowner about $22.50 a year, he said.

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