State budget plan moves to conference committee -- Gazette.Net



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The state’s fiscal year 2014 budget is headed to a conference committee, after passing both chambers of the General Assembly with relatively little debate.

“I can’t remember a year when the budget was adopted by a larger margin than was done today,” Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Dist. 26) of Chesapeake Beach said Wednesday.

There was less turmoil this year over the budget, lawmakers said, because there are no tax increases included in Gov. Martin O’Malley’s bill, as there have been in previous years.

A conference committee is made up of members of the House and the Senate to work out differences in the final version of a bill passed in each chamber.

The Senate passed the budget by a vote of 42-5 Wednesday, meaning a majority of Republicans supported it.

“This was about dividing up the pot,” said Senate Minority Leader E.J. Pipkin (R-Dist. 36) of Elkton, one of the five who voted against the budget bill. He noted that the decisions made in previous years, including tax hikes, meant less arguing about which programs should be cut.

“The governor has decided tax and spend is the way to go,” he said.

Miller attributed the sunny fiscal picture less to tax hikes and more to an improving economy.

“The economy is improving. Employment is up. The revenues are up. We’re coming out of the recession,” Miller said. “And people are happy that we’re not cutting, cutting, cutting, and that we’re actually putting money into social programs...while at the same time being fiscally responsible.”

The $37.4 billion budget presented by O’Malley (D) is being lauded by supporters for closing the structural deficit to $166 million, down from $2 billion three years ago. Opponents argue that the gap should have been closed through cuts in expenditures, rather than on increased sales and income taxes.

The General Assembly cannot add to the governor’s budget, but can cut proposed funding levels and change where money is going: The House cut $432 million, and the Senate cut $601 million, much of it from reserve funds.

Leaders are eager to not repeat what happened last year, when the General Assembly failed to pass a complete budget package by the end of the session, and had to come back for two special sessions to finish business. The conference committee will have longer to reconcile differences this year than last, and some are anticipating a much smoother conclusion.

hnunn@gazette.net