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Lawmakers Warn Of Larger Classrooms, Medicaid Cuts

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ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — Legislative leaders warned Wednesday that Maryland’s $1.6 billion budget shortfall could lead to larger K-12 classroom sizes and higher college tuition costs, as well as cuts to health care providers and environmental programs.

But Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael Busch said they have to wait until they see Gov. Martin O’Malley’s budget proposal later this month before knowing what sorts of tax increases — if any — might gain traction this year.

The legislators issued their warnings as the Maryland General Assembly began its 90-day session.

O’Malley has said he plans to close the budget gap with a range of painful spending cuts — not tax increases. However the governor says his budget will only be the start of a dialogue, and he’s
keeping an open mind on tax proposals.

“When we look to see what he cuts, if he starts cutting education to the bone, or Medicaid to the bone or the environment to the bone, I mean there are people like myself who feel very strongly about those issues, and we’ll support revenues to make up the lost revenue,” Miller, D-Calvert, told reporters after the first day of the legislative session.

Busch, D-Anne Arundel, said he is expecting difficult budget cuts to local governments, including to highway user money for roads. Busch also said health care providers for Medicaid patients could face large reductions, because health costs make up a big part of the state’s budget.

“Your physicians, your nurses, your nursing homes, your hospitals, are all going to get cut probably in the area of about a half a billion dollars, if you’re going to balance this budget,” Busch said during a joint appearance with Miller on “The Marc Steiner Show” on WEAA-FM.

Joseph DeMattos, president of the Health Facilities Association of Maryland, cited a new study that concludes the state’s Medicaid program underfunds the actual cost of providing skilled nursing
care by $11.73 per elderly patient a day. He also noted that Maryland’s long-term Medicaid budget already has been cut by about $180 million over the past three fiscal years.

“Our lawmakers in Annapolis must carefully consider the substantial shortfall in funding that long-term care providers are already operating in when making any further policy decisions about the future of our state’s Medicaid program,” DeMattos said.

Miller has expressed support for increasing the gas tax of 23.5 cents per gallon, which hasn’t been raised since 1992, in order to help rejuvenate funding for transportation projects. However, he dismissed as “total nonsense” a proposal for a “dime-a-drink” tax on alcohol designed by proponents to raise about $200 million.

“You have to have a sane tax structure, and that would be insanity personified,” Miller said, noting that he could support a much smaller alcohol tax increase to raise around $9 million that wouldn’t harm businesses.

Vincent DeMarco, president of the Maryland Citizens’ Health Initiative, said he was thrilled that even a scaled- back tax measure has become part of the dialogue.

“The two questions are how much and how it’s used,” DeMarco said.

Sen. Allan Kittleman, the Senate minority leader, said he expects a push for new taxes.

“I’m hopeful that we won’t raise taxes,” Kittleman, R-Howard, said. “I’ll be fighting against those, but we’ll see what comes forward.”

O’Malley, meanwhile, told reporters he was hoping to avoid having to furlough state employees for a fourth straight year.

“Three years of furloughs, I think, is enough,” O’Malley said. “I think we’ve got to make the adjustments and start getting back to a new normal.”

O’Malley, who will make his budget proposal public on Jan. 21, said he hopes that enough state employees accept early retirement buyouts to enable him to avoid, or at least pull back, on furlough days. So far, about 1,400 workers have applied for a $15,000 buyout plus $200 for each year of service, but the applications have not been vetted for eligibility yet.

Last year, the governor included 10 furlough days for about 67,000 of the state’s 80,000 employees, marking the third year in a row that state employees had to take unpaid days off.

On non-budgetary matters, Miller said he’s confident there will be a “very lively debate” on same-sex marriage legislation. He said he believes there is enough support to bring legislation legalizing same-sex marriage or civil unions to the full Senate, where the legislation is expected to be debated early in the
session.

“If it does pass, I believe it will pass the House, but I believe it will be petitioned to referendum and I believe it will be on the ballot in 2012, so that the public itself will have an opportunity to vote,” Miller said.

Busch said he thinks same-sex marriage legislation has enough support in the House Judiciary Committee, but he said he did not have a strong feel yet for support in the House of Delegates.

Maryland law currently only recognizes marriage between a man and a woman.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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