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Legislators say cuts to budget were necessary

August 03, 2003|by LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

Some Washington County lawmakers are worried about the effect of $208 million in state budget cuts, but most said it's a necessary evil to chip away at a $1 billion budget deficit that Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich inherited when he took office in January.

"The steps he's taken so far have been very compassionate but have made a lot of financial sense," said Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington.

Statewide, the budget reduction plan proposed by Ehrlich led to higher tuition at state colleges and universities and will mean $3.6 million less in money for college scholarships.

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Overtime for correctional officers is being cut by $2.8 million, which will affect the prison system south of Hagerstown.

In other areas of state government, nearly 1,000 positions were eliminated, most of them vacant. Eighty-two state workers will lose their jobs.

Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, said Friday he was trying to determine the impact on state jobs locally.

"I do believe the governor's office did these cuts as sensitively as they could, as best they could not to cut to the bone," Munson said.

The Property Tax Assessment Appeals Board, which is based in Hagerstown and run by former Washington County Commissioner Ronald Bowers, is taking an 8 percent reduction. Bowers said he plans to siphon the $62,000 from salaries of board members across the state.

"The whole thing comes down on being able to have an efficient-running operation. Sometimes the budget-cutting process causes people to work smarter," he said.

Republican lawmakers said Ehrlich had little choice but to reduce the budget given the fact the Legislature scrapped his slot machines proposal earlier this year.

But Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, said the cuts would have been less painful if the state had closed corporate tax loopholes as the majority-Democrat Legislature wanted. Ehrlich vetoed the tax package.

Del. Richard B. Weldon, R-Frederick/Washington, said he heard from two constituents, one Democrat and one Republican, who were glad to see budget cuts before tax increases.

Ehrlich was elected on that promise.

"I think Ehrlich has been consistent. I give him an 'A' for consistency," Weldon said.

Shank said Ehrlich is wise to make cuts now that will help narrow the budget gap the Maryland General Assembly will face in January.

Despite the cuts, the governor and legislature will still have budget problems to deal with, lawmakers said.

"By the time we get to Annapolis, unless the economy totally turns around, this trend, this problem, will continue. This might cut into it some but it's still going to be a billion-dollar problem," Munson said.

"It's going to be a mighty painful ride," Donoghue said.

Donoghue criticized the policy of cutting higher education and increasing tuition.

"There are a lot of kids from Washington County getting ready for college. A lot of those kids are going to turn around and say 'I'm not going to go,'" he said.

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