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Washington County lawmakers cautiously optimistic of Gov. O'Malley's 'jobs budget' for 2014

January 23, 2013|By KAUSTUV BASU | kaustuv.basu@herald-mail.com
  • Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley addresses members of the Maryland House of Delegates on the first day of the 2013 legislative session in Annapolis, Md., Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013. Standing behind O'Malley is House Speaker Michael Busch.
AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

Washington County lawmakers expressed cautious optimism after looking at Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley’s budget for fiscal year 2014, a spending plan that lists total aid to the county at about $199 million.

That figure is 4.6 percent more than last year’s figure of about $190 million set aside for aid to the county.

Total aid includes funding for primary and secondary education, public health and transportation, libraries and public safety, among other items.

Statewide, the 2014 fiscal year budget provides $7 billion in total aid to local governments, an increase of more than $317 million, or 4.8 percent, from last year.

“We are mostly at or above state averages for most categories,” said Del. Andrew A. Serafini, R-Washington, who said he was pleased overall with the numbers. He and other members of the delegation are prepared for a long slog in the coming weeks as they try to make additions and changes to the governor’s budget to benefit Washington County, he said.

O’Malley on Wednesday called his budget a “jobs budget,” saying that it would create an additional 43,000 jobs in the state because of new capital projects.

Anthony O’Donnell, R-Calvert/St. Mary’s, who is the house minority leader and Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio, R-Caroline/Dorchester/Talbot/Wicomico and minority whip, called the budget an “accounting of convenience,” pointing out that the state’s spending has increased by 26 percent since fiscal year 2008.

According to the state’s Department of Legislative Services, the state’s total spending in the proposed operating budget would be $37.2 billion, up from $35.8 billion in the current fiscal year.

The following is a glimpse at spending by category:


Public safety

Washington County will receive $1.4 million in police aid from the state, a figure that is decided based on population and population density. These grants, according to the state’s Department of Budget and Management, are shared between the counties and municipalities.

Fire and rescue systems in the county will receive $231,000.

Taken together, the aid being proposed for police and fire safety in the coming fiscal year is $528,000 more than last year.


Transportation and retirement

Highway user revenue, which includes revenue from transportation taxes, is shared between a county and municipalities.

According to the proposed budget, Washington County will receive $2.6 million in highway user revenue, transportation grants for the elderly and disabled, and other grants. This includes a share of a one-time grant of $15.4 million for the entire state meant for municipalities.

Because of the grant, it is proposed that Washington County could receive 73 percent more in transportation aid for the next fiscal year.

“One of the things that I like about the budget is that the municipalities ... would benefit from a one-time infusion” of the additional grant in the transportation aid, said Sen. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington. That’s because other state funds to help maintain local roadways have dried up, Shank said.

Retirement contributions from the state for those eligible in the school system, libraries and community colleges will be $21.9 million, an increase of 17 percent from the current fiscal year.


Education and libraries

Money set aside by the state for the University System of Maryland at Hagerstown is an estimated $1.9 million for the next fiscal year.

That amount is about $4,000 more than the allocation in the last three years.

Last year, Del. John L. Bohanan Jr., D-St. Mary’s, proposed reducing the USMH budget by $1 million, but that bill ended up not affecting the Hagerstown campus.

Bohanan made a similar attempt in 2008 to reduce funding to USMH through the budget process, according to reports, in an effort to increase funding to other Maryland regional higher education systems.

“Clearly, right now ... it appears University System at Hagerstown is not only fine, but looks like a slight increase. Looks like Hagerstown Community College is in good shape ... We are still digging down into this,” Serafini said. “So overall, those consistent and major funding things look OK so far.”

Education aid in Washington County for primary and secondary education is scheduled to increase by $2.6 million, or 1.7 percent, over the current fiscal year, with the total aid amounting to about $161 million. That excludes state contributions to the pension and retirement system.

The proposed education aid per student in the county’s public schools is $8,251, while the state average is at $7,284.

Hagerstown Community College is scheduled to receive direct grants of $7.4 million. In the 2013 fiscal year, the direct aid for HCC, which is calculated on a formula based on the number of full-time students, was at $6.97 million.

Washington County public libraries are scheduled to get $1.2 million in operating and capital expenses, according to the budget figures released by O’Malley.


Disparity grant

Local delegation members had been hoping that the county would be included in the state’s disparity grant in the proposed budget, but it was not.

The annual grant is given to counties with per-capita income tax revenue less than 75 percent of the state average.

But Washington County, which should qualify according to that formula, has not been receiving the grant because the program was capped in 2010, stopping counties that were not eligible in fiscal year 2010 from getting the grant in later years.

If eligible, the county would have received $6.7 million in the current fiscal year.

Shank said Thursday that the delegation would make every effort to get the grant.

“The delegation is going to continue to work through the budget reconciliation financing act ... to try to get that formula changed,” Shank said. “We are talking about forming a coalition of those different counties to try to see what we can do to advance that issue.”

Del. Neil C. Parrott, R-Washington, said he also was disappointed about the disparity grant.

“Now, we do qualify and we ought to get it,” Parrott said.

Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, said he liked the governor’s budget.

“I think it is very fair to Washington County,” Donoghue said. “There are no surprises.”

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