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Local projects need help to survive state budget process

January 25, 2007

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley's first budget does several things guaranteed to keep the General Assembly's leadership happy.

But it doesn't do anything to solve the state's so-called structural deficit. In our view, O'Malley will get away with this lack of action only if he appoints a new version of the Linowes Commission - and pledges to follow its recommendations.

But for now, legislative leaders are pleased because the budget meets their spending affordability guidelines, designed to keep expenditures from outstripping revenues.

It includes no expenses related to slot machines, with O'Malley saying that he doesn't want to spend the entire first session on that troublesome issue.

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That will mean another delay in getting slots on line, but the approach is preferable to the one used by Gov. Robert Ehrlich.

Although Ehrlich had campaigned in favor of slots as a new source of revenue, the first bill he introduced was a mess, which gave opponents such as House Speaker Michael Busch many reasons to block it. If O'Malley can spend the summer of 2007 crafting a better bill - and lobbying key lawmakers - he'll be way ahead of the game.

O'Malley also made points by not borrowing from the state's Transportation Trust Fund or Program Open Space, which provides local jurisdictions with cash for parks and other facilities.

But fiscal conservatives aren't happy that the budget was balanced by reducing the state's "rainy day" fund by $900 million.

In a Jan. 8 statement, the Maryland Budget and Tax Policy Institute said the approach is "not sustainable."

That is a polite way of saying that this budget-balancing trick can't be used more than once.

The budget does increase aid to education by more than $500 million, as Thornton Commission legislation dictates. It also holds the line on tuition for institutions in the University System of Maryland.

As for local items in the state budget, a Tuesday press release from Washington Coun ty delegation chairman LeRoy Myers Jr., said the first version of the budget funds a number of them.

They include:

· Restoring correctional officer positions at the state prison complex south of Hagerstown. There is also $32 million for a new, 192-cell medium- security housing unit at the Maryland Correctional Training Center.

· $4.7 million for a new Pangborn Elementary School and $2 million for Westfields Elementary School.

· $3 million to upgrade nutrient removal at Hagers-town's wastewater treatment plant. Other local municipal plants are also slated to receive grants.

· $1.4 million for a Central Booking Unit at the Washington County Detention Center.

· Del. Myers said he was glad that all of those projects made it into the budget. But he said there will be a need to watch the budget process closely, to make sure those items survive the process.

Doing that will require some lobbying by local elected officials and business leaders.

Those folks also need to pay attention to what happens in regard to the structural deficit, which is estimated to top $1 billion unless lawmakers find new revenue or cut existing programs.

For Washington County residents to think only of their own needs would be unwise, because in the past, Maryland's budget has been balanced by pushing some costs traditionally covered by the state back to the local jurisdic- tions.

State Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller has already hinted that there may be a reduction in aid to state's counties and municipalities. If local leaders can show Miller a workable alternative, Washington County might be spared a great deal of financial pain.

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