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Md. budget surplus good for county

January 18, 2006|by TAMELA BAKER

ANNAPOLIS

tammyb@herald-mail.com

The black covers on the three volumes of Gov. Robert Ehrlich's operating budget proposal might have been symbolic.

In announcing his proposed fiscal year 2007 budget Tuesday, Ehrlich reminisced a little, harking back to transition meetings between his election in November 2002 and his inauguration in 2003.

"Those first few meetings of the budget group were some of the most painful moments I have spent in public life," Ehrlich said, recalling that Comptroller William Donald Schaefer had remarked that Ehrlich faced "the worst fiscal situation any Maryland governor ever inherited. And there've been a lot of governors."

This year, however, Ehrlich's budget proposal was virtually pain-free, given the state's billion-dollar surplus.

And for Washington County, the news generally was good.

The county was allotted $139.2 million in direct aid for fiscal year 2007, an increase of 17.2 percent from the current year. Once again, Washington County has been allotted the highest percentage increase of any county in the state.

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Nearly $150 million in total aid has been earmarked for the county, which includes retirement payments for state employees. That's a total increase of 16.7 percent from this year's appropriation.

While the governor's capital budget proposal has not yet been released, it will include $10.3 million for the expansion project at Washington County Regional Airport, according to the budget summary released Tuesday.

"Washington County's done rather well again," said Del. Robert A. McKee, R-Washington. "It's a situation where we can't complain.

"It's much nicer to be the governor and the county on the receiving end when there's a surplus."

Ehrlich said the budget fully funds the Cade formula of aid for community colleges, an issue for which Hagerstown Community College officials heavily lobbied local legislators before the General Assembly convened this year, and fully funds the Thornton formula for K-12 public schools.

Citing the state's wealth, Del. LeRoy E. Myers, R-Washington/Allegany, said "there should be no reason why we don't do a better job of funding education."

The lion's share of the budget - 42 percent - is earmarked for education. In addition to the money allotted for schools, Myers said he wants to see improvements in the pension program for teachers, which promises to be a hot topic in Annapolis this winter.

In addition to goodies for various state departments, the budget also allows for a 15 percent cut in the state's property tax and reintroduces a tax exemption for military retirement income.

Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, said the tax cuts were one of the most important parts of the governor's budget.

"It's a very fiscally responsible budget ... it allows us to return some money to the constituents and make some investments" in personnel and education, Shank said.

"It's been difficult along the way; we've had to say 'no'" to a lot of requests over the years, he added. "Now, we can reward some people."

Shank said Tuesday he anticipates some additional good news for correctional officers, who are getting an average pay increase of 6 percent retroactive to Jan. 1. Ehrlich's budget includes an additional 2 percent cost-of-living increase for state employees.

Shank and Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, said they expect money for additional correctional officers once current vacancies are filled.

"I think that's an excellent thing in regard to security," Munson said, adding his belief that Ehrlich had included the money "in part because the Washington County Delegation has been beating on him and beating on him."

Shank also expects an increase in school construction allotments for the county in Ehrlich's capital budget. School officials will be making their annual pitch for capital funds today before the state Board of Public Works.

Local legislators were pleased with the county's share of the pie.

"I think it's great," Myers said. "I think Bob Ehrlich is looking at how Western Maryland was deprived for years."

Although much of the direct aid to counties is calculated according to funding formulas, Myers was unfazed in his praise for the governor.

"Yeah, but it's still there," Myers said.

"I think we got very fortunate for a second year in a row," Munson said. "I think it's a recognition in some sense of the good things that are happening in Washington County."

"The economy has turned around and allowed this governor to fund some things he probably wanted to before," McKee said. "If you don't have it, you can't give it away."

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