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County schools gain in budget

January 22, 2004|by LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

Washington County Public Schools will get an 11 percent increase in state aid under Gov. Robert Ehrlich's 2005 budget released Wednesday.

But Ehrlich's $23.8 billion spending plan also calls for cuts to local government that some legislative leaders argue will eat into those gains.

It does not fix the state's long-term deficit.

As the governor said Tuesday, it also provides $1 million to open the University System of Maryland Hagerstown Education Center in January.

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Ehrlich's proposed budget would funnel $80 million into Washington County schools, an increase of $7.9 million over last year, according to the Maryland Department of Budget and Management.

Local government in Washington County stands to take a $3 million hit, mostly through a reduction in highway user revenues, according to the Maryland Department of Legislative Services.

Of that, $1.9 million is to come out of highway user revenues, which represent a share of gas taxes.

Other local government cuts are proposed for Program Open Space, utility grants, special education, student transportation and the teacher salary challenge program, according to Legislative Services.

Ehrlich said it was not an easy task to balance the budget and provide extra money for education and health care while keeping his promise of no major tax increase.

The budget proposes a 1.6 percent cost-of-living increase for state employees, which would be the first in more than two years.

It also includes $98.5 million to upgrade public sewer systems, which would be paid for in part by charging customers $2.50 a month.

Lawmakers react


Local lawmakers praised Ehrlich's bare bones spending plan.

"I think considering the tough times we're in it's a very good, reasonable budget," said Del. Robert A. McKee, R-Washington.

Sen. Donald F. Munson, whose committee will pick apart the budget over the next two months, said there's not much room for cuts.

"This is a very tight budget. I don't think the Senate is prepared to make major cuts," said Munson, R-Washington.

Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, said it will get more difficult next year for Ehrlich to balance the budget if the legislature does not approve slot machines.

Unlike last year, this year's budget proposal does not rely on the approval of slots.

Democratic leaders said it leans too heavily on one-time sources of money.

Legislative Services estimates the state will face another $1 billion deficit for the 2006 fiscal year.

"Without revenues from new taxes or slots, he's got to rob Peter to pay Paul," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, D-Prince George's.

Ehrlich is shifting the state's budget woes onto local governments and forcing them to raise taxes, said House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel.

Democrats and Republicans acknowledge the long-term budget hole, but no one has been able to agree on a solution.

"It doesn't seem like we're taking a global look at this, rolling up our sleeves and solving it," Busch said.

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