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Government & Politics

House Passes Budget Bill as Senate Prepares for Decision Day

Photo by Danielle E. Gaines

The Maryland House of Delegates gave initial approval to a $46.7 billion budget bill on Wednesday that would increase state spending by about 4.2 percent next year.

The budget includes an additional $320 million for new education initiatives recommended by the Kirwan Commission, $500 million for public school construction and a $109.5 million increase in funding for public colleges and universities.

House Appropriations Chair Maggie L. McIntosh (D-Baltimore City) said the spending plan leaves a 6.6 percent, or $1.2 billion, in reserves through the General Fund balance and the Rainy Day Fund.

State funding for education exceeds $7 billion for the first time. State payments to local school systems would increase by 8.6 percent. The 2020 funding for Kirwan priorities would be directed to expanded pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds, additional special education funding and increased teacher salaries.

The House Appropriations Committee made 188 amendments to the budget bill and considered a Budget Reconciliation and Financing Act introduced after the governor’s budget plan.

A handful of committee amendments that targeted priorities of Republican Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s administration – including amendments that would cut funding to tax breaks for job creators and limit the future growth of a private school scholarship program for low-income students – were accepted without debate.

A half-dozen of the committee amendments were discussed and debated in the chamber on Wednesday. None of the Republican efforts to stall the committee amendments were successful.

Del. Susan W. Krebs (R-Carroll) argued against a cut to three additional employees in the Education Accountability Office that was established during the interim by Hogan. The governor sought funding for 11 education compliance and oversight positions in 2020, which the committee reduced to five positions that are contingent upon passage of an administration bill to establish the office. That bill, House Bill 45, has not yet received a vote in the Ways and Means Committee.

Dels. Shelly L. Hettleman (D-Baltimore County) and Eric Luedtke (D-Montgomery) noted that the chamber is poised to pass other new accountability measures this session through the Kirwan Commission recommendations and by creating an Office of Performance Evaluation and Government Accountability with one evaluator dedicated to education issues.

Del. Jason C. Buckel (R-Allegany) encouraged members to vote against an amendment that would scale back a new Hogan administration plan to offer student loan forgiveness to state workers. The House budget bill would cut a proposed $8 million appropriation by $6 million.

Del. Marc Korman (D-Montgomery) said the committee supports the program but believes spending should ramp up more slowly. The additional funds are deferred until 2021.

House Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga (R-Baltimore and Harford) opposed the committee’s decision to strike language that would set aside $1.2 million for public charter schools in the $30 million Healthy School Facilities Fund. McIntosh said public charter schools were already eligible for the grant funding, so did not need a special set-aside.

Del. Matthew Morgan (R-St. Mary’s) opposed a provision that diverted $50 million from a payment to teacher pension funds to community development and school construction instead. Del. Benjamin Barnes (D-Prince George’s and Anne Arundel) said that amount is captured via a fund balance “sweeper,” something the governor has cut himself in previous years; the House budget includes the entire $1.7 billion pension payment suggested by actuarial reports without the sweeper amount, he said.

Three Republican lawmakers also introduced floor amendments, all of which were voted down by the Democratic majority.

Del. Neil Parrott (R-Washington) introduced an amendment that would have required the Maryland Department of Health to confirm an individual’s legal immigration status before granting Medicaid benefits. Del. Kirill Reznik (D-Montgomery) said the department already conducts such a check to comply with federal law, so the amendment was unnecessary. Parrott’s amendment failed 41-98.

Del. April Rose (R-Carroll) introduced an amendment that would restrict Medicaid payments for abortions, an amendment that failed 41-93.

Del. Mark N. Fisher (R-Calvert) introduced an amendment to restrict $1 million of the University System of Maryland budget until completion of a report to facilitate the exercise of First Amendment rights on campus; Fisher said conservative students aren’t able to express their views in Maryland or across the country without being threatened. Barnes said the university was already required to permit free speech and abide by the Constitution. The amendment failed by a vote of 42-96.

Across the hall, the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee will make final budget recommendations for that chamber’s budget bill on Thursday. Senators say they are concerned about the funding mechanisms for the expensive Kirwan Commission recommendations, including identifying dedicated funding for the commission’s recommendations in future years.

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House Passes Budget Bill as Senate Prepares for Decision Day