After debating social issues including vouchers for private schools and access to abortion, the House of Delegates gave initial approval to a $50.45 billion budget plan Thursday.
The chamber debated aspects of the spending plan for more than two hours Thursday night, ultimately approving a budget that was significantly bolstered by a dramatic influx in federal stimulus funding and state revenues that were recently projected at about $900 million more than previous estimates.
The proposed 2022 budget plan restores the state’s savings accounts, resolves a projected budget shortfall and would lead to a projected structural surplus of $262 million by 2026, according to a fiscal analysis.
The spending plan includes a $422 million replenishment of the state’s Rainy Day Fund and $50 million set aside for state employee retirement liabilities. About $572 million is set aside for pandemic-related testing, contact tracing and vaccinations, with an additional $585 million in new tax relief for businesses hit hard by the pandemic and low-income Maryland residents.
If state revenues continue to exceed expectations, the House spending plan also includes a salary increase of up to 4.5% for members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union.
The House restored $43.9 million to a program that helps local jurisdictions fund recreation areas, and dedicated half of that amount to critical maintenance projects at state parks. And lawmakers also restored proposed cuts to funding formulas for community colleges ($26.6 million) and private colleges ($29.8 million).
Late on Wednesday, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) sent a fourth supplemental budget proposal to lawmakers that also moved to restore the community college funding.
Maryland public education funding is more than $7.5 billion in the budget, and all local jurisdictions will see at least the same amount of funding they received in the current fiscal year.
The longest debate centered on the controversial BOOST program that Hogan created, which provides vouchers to allow public school students to transfer to private schools.
As it has for several years, the House Appropriations Committee approved amendments that dramatically reduce Hogan’s proposed $10 million in funding for the program by restricting vouchers only to those students who are already receiving the assistance and their siblings. The committee’s amendment would effectively gradually reduce funding for the vouchers and eliminate the program altogether within 12 years.
Republican lawmakers, as well as some Democrats, argued that the program serves only low-income students, most of them minorities, and offer those students educational opportunities that surpass their neighborhood public schools.
But Del. Ben Barnes (D-Prince George’s), who chairs the Education and Economic Development Subcommittee, said the legislature’s chief goal should be funding public schools.
The committee’s amendment to phase out the BOOST program passed 92-40.
In other actions, the House fenced off $2.8 million that could only be used for the operations of the Southern Maryland Pre-Release Unit in St. Mary’s County and the Eastern Pre-Release Unit in Queen Anne’s County, in an effort to keep those facilities operating.
Delegates also fenced off $1.5 million to support the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and $500,000 for educational programming at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
Del. Kevin B. Hornberger (R-Cecil) objected to an amendment from the House Appropriations Committee that would fence off $1 million for the Maryland Stem Cell Research Fund, citing concerns about research using embryonic stem cells. Del. Maggie L. McIntosh (D-Baltimore City), chair of the committee, said most of the funding for the program is not used for research that involves embryonic stem cells, which have fallen out of favor by many researchers, and that the embryonic cell lines used today were developed decades ago.
The House voted 93-38 to accept the committee amendment, and rejected a corresponding amendment proposed by Hornberger by a similar margin.
House Democrats also voted down other proposed amendments from Del. Kathy Szeliga (R-Baltimore County) that would have restricted reimbursement payments for medical providers who conduct abortions and from Del. William J. Wivell (R-Washington) that would have restricted $100,000 from the Department of Health budget until the state submitted an abortion surveillance report to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Maryland, California, New Hampshire and Wyoming are the only states that did not submit information for the CDC’s 2020 report.
As more federal stimulus funds are sent to the state, lawmakers and the Hogan administration will likely continue to juggle supplemental budget appropriations, even as the budget bills move through the legislature, fiscal analysts said Thursday.
A final House vote on the budget proposal is expected Friday, sending the proposal to the Senate. During this legislative session, the House and Senate budget committees have held joint virtual hearings to streamline the budget process. A final budget plan must be passed by both chambers before April 5.