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Md. Budget Advances In House Of Delegates

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ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — Maryland budget measures that raise more than $70 million in fees, make deeper cuts to the governor’s proposal and get the state started on pension reform moved forward in the House of Delegates Wednesday night.

The House adopted changes made late last week by its appropriations committee to the state’s $34 billion budget. Leaders in the Democrat-controlled House say the legislation addresses about 40 percent of the state’s projected budget deficit in future years.

“This was one of the most difficult budgets that the appropriations committee has worked on,” said Delegate Norman Conway, D-Wicomico, who has chaired the panel since 2003 and is a longtime member.

But Republicans contend lawmakers haven’t done enough to tackle the serious fiscal problems of the future.

“The world is a very unstable place and our economy is very unstable right now, and I don’t believe we’re taking the steps to be prepared for that environment and we should be taking much stronger action to balance our budget in the long term,” said Delegate Anthony O’Donnell, R-Calvert, the House minority leader.

Democrats rejected a variety of amendments offered by Republicans on Wednesday night.

One would have cut a provision that gives state employees who have endured three years of furloughs a $750 bonus. Another would have cut $12 million for stem cell research. Democrats also rejected an amendment that would have prohibited illegal immigrants from receiving in-county tuition at community colleges.

Last week, a House committee added more than $70 million in fee increases.

One of the biggest would double a titling fee on new vehicle purchases from $50 to $100, a change that would raise an estimated $50 million. A fee for vanity license plates would double from $25 to $50, raising an estimated $2 million. The money will go into the state’s badly depleted transportation trust fund to help make up some of the $100 million that Gov. Martin O’Malley transferred from it to fill budget holes and boost the state’s Rainy Day Fund.

The House legislation also provides $5 million in assistance for road repairs to counties and $8 million to municipalities, after severe cuts in recent years. It also restores about $58 million of $94 million that the Democratic governor had cut from education funding, after years of record spending on schools during the recession.

A surcharge on filing land records will rise from $20 to $40 to raise an estimated $17 million. Fees for birth certificates would double from $12 to $24.

The House legislation also includes a variety of cuts.

Some of the biggest include an $8 million reduction from the University System of Maryland and a $10 million rate reduction for managed care organizations under Medicaid. The plan also collects about $12 million in savings from changes to the state’s retiree prescription drug plan. Another $19 million in savings comes from charging counties 50 percent of property valuation costs.

O’Malley’s pension reform plan also was changed.

One significant difference requires state employees to pay 7 percent of their salaries instead of 5 percent into their pension plan. O’Malley’s proposal would have given employees a choice of paying 7 percent to receive the same retirement benefit or keep paying 5 percent for less money in retirement.

Maryland has $19 billion in unfunded pension liabilities and $16 billion in retiree health liabilities. The state is aiming to raise Maryland’s funding of the pension system from 64 percent to 80 percent by 2023.

A final vote in the House is expected as soon as Thursday. Then, the budget legislation goes to the Senate. Any changes made by the Senate will need to be worked out between the two chambers.

The House budget legislation includes about $120 million in fund balance as a cushion. It also includes about $800 million on the state’s Rainy Day Fund.

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

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