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COVID-19 in Maryland Government & Politics

Senate Panel Moves Budget as Coronavirus Fight Becomes Top Concern

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) announces the first three coronavirus cases in Maryland at a State House news conference Thursday night. Photo by Josh Kurtz

The Maryland Senate’s Budget and Taxation Committee moved forward with a budget plan on Thursday that restored planned increases to community colleges and social services providers ― and took action to free up millions in state funding hours before officials confirmed the first three cases of novel coronavirus in the state.

Even before Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s night-time news conference at the State House to confirm the coronavirus cases and reassure Marylanders about the public health response, the Senate fast-tracked an emergency bill allowing the state to use $50 million from its Rainy Day Fund to help agencies respond to COVID-19.

The bill would take effect immediately upon passage and remain in effect through the 2021 fiscal year.

Fran Phillips, deputy secretary of public health services, said Thursday that health officials are monitoring 300 people in the state by telephone. “These are asymptomatic people who have come back from international travel,” Phillips said. “But what we have seen recently is much more indication that this virus is being spread domestically.”

The state has undertaken enhanced monitoring in recent days, which is “simply not sustainable without additional resources,” she told senators.

For the three coronavirus cases confirmed in Montgomery County — a couple in their 70’s and a woman in her 50’s — public health officials are now working to track the movements of the patients, who are expected to recover, and determine if anyone else may have been exposed.

“While today’s news may seem overwhelming, this is not a reason to panic,” Hogan said during his news conference Thursday night.

The emergency funding bill is needed so the state can be prepared to isolate or quarantine people, purchase more personal protective equipment for hospitals and nursing homes, and to keep the state’s public health lab operating on multiple shifts to process tests.

“I’m certain that we’re stronger than we have ever been in the past in regard to our capability to respond,” Phillips assured lawmakers.

The bill is expected to be taken up on the Senate floor Friday.

The committee also voted to approve an additional $10 million for coronavirus efforts as part of a supplemental budget introduced by Hogan on Thursday.

The House Appropriations Committee is scheduled to take up the coronavirus funding issues on Friday.

Other budget action

On Thursday afternoon, the Budget and Taxation Committee made dozens of changes to Hogan’s proposed $47.9 billion budget plan and a corresponding Budget Reconciliation and Financing Act during a brisk two-hour decision meeting.

In amendments to the Budget Reconciliation and Financing Act, the committee restored planned funding increases for community colleges and private colleges, and also kept a proposed rate increase of 4% for community service providers in the Developmental Disabilities Administration, behavioral health providers and Medicaid service providers.

The committee’s budget includes $41.3 million in salary increases to members of three state unions: the American Federation of Teachers Healthcare-Maryland, the Maryland Professional Employees Council and AFSCME, the state’s largest union.

A cut of 35 positions and about $10 million from the budget of the Maryland Judiciary was approved, while the committee also added budget language to provide a 2% salary increase to judiciary employees.

To limit the Department of Commerce’s authority to issue new tax credits, the committee voted to reduce the More Jobs for Marylanders income tax credit program to $2 million ― a more than $7 million cut.

The committee amended budget language originally introduced by the governor to restrict more than $13 million in local law enforcement grants to the city of Baltimore until the city’s mayor, state’s attorney and police department develop a comprehensive annual crime strategy.

The committee rejected a provision of Hogan’s budget that would have diverted $5 million from the city’s highway budget to help pay for improvements to the Howard Street Tunnel.

Pending a report on historical and projected Chesapeake Bay restoration spending, the committee withheld $200,000 each for five executive departments.

A $1 million grant recently called into question in an audit of the state’s Opioid Operational Command Center was repealed.

Committee members split on only one issue during the meeting, with a majority ultimately voting in favor of a $10 million appropriation to Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today (BOOST) Program, which provides funding for low-income students to attend private schools.

Hogan introduced the supplemental budget on the same day the Senate budget panel was scheduled to vote on a fiscal 2021 spending plan.

Provisions in the supplemental budget plan include $11.1 million for foster care maintenance payments; $6 million for the Maryland Center for School Safety; $1.1 million in federal funds for election security; and more than $1.7 million to compensate Marylanders exonerated from wrongful convictions.

The full Senate is expected to vote on the committee’s budget proposal next week, then the House of Delegates will take up a spending plan. Lawmakers must pass a final budget by March 30.

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Senate Panel Moves Budget as Coronavirus Fight Becomes Top Concern