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Parties cooperate to approve Ehrlich budget

March 27, 2004|by LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

ANNAPOLIS - In a rare show of bipartisan cooperation this legislative session, the Maryland House of Delegates on Friday unanimously approved Gov. Robert Ehrlich's $23.6 billion spending plan for fiscal 2005.

"It's a very special moment when everyone can come to agreement on the most important document the state of Maryland puts out," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel.

House members stood up and cheered after Friday's vote.

The budget earmarks $1 million toward startup costs at the University System of Maryland Hagerstown Education Center.

While every lawmaker can find elements of the budget to disagree with, the overall package is balanced and fair, said Minority Leader Del. George C. Edwards, R-Garrett.

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Before the vote, delegates tried unsuccessfully to make changes to the budget.

Some wanted to block Medicaid funding of abortions. The motion failed 83-56 after supporters argued that a compromise in effect for decades limits those abortions to cases of rape and when the health of the mother is in jeopardy.

Others wanted to cut about $3 million for private school textbooks and computer equipment. The motion was defeated on a voice vote after supporters of funding argued that $3 million is a very small amount of money to help children who attend nonpublic schools.

Del. Richard Weldon, R-Frederick/Washington, tried to restore the Department of Budget and Management's power to withhold money from state agencies, a maneuver Ehrlich used last year to control state spending.

Before losing the argument on a vote of 91-49, Republicans warned that future governors could be hamstrung without the power.

"Yesterday, we set our citizens adrift on a sea of taxes and debt," said Del. Michael D. Smigiel, R-Eastern Shore. "Today, we're taking away the boat."

Smigiel was referring to a $670 million tax package that narrowly passed the House on Thursday. The package was opposed by the Washington County Delegation.

The budget also has passed the Senate, but there are numerous differences that must be resolved in the final 16 days of the General Assembly session.

The budget disagreements may not be that difficult to work out, but negotiations between the two houses will be complicated by a major difference between the Senate and House on taxes and Ehrlich's slot machine bill.

The House added the $670 million tax package - $1 billion in new taxes partially offset by about $350 million in tax cuts - to a second bill that will be required to keep the budget balanced without deep cuts in state services. Ehrlich and the Senate proposed much more modest revenue measures, and the governor has said he will veto the bill if it contains the House tax package.

The Senate passed a bill to authorize up to 15,500 slot machines at six locations a month ago, but it is languishing in the House Ways and Means Committee, which won't hold a hearing on the bill until Tuesday.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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