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House Gives Initial OK To Budget Package

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ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — The Maryland House of Delegates gave initial approval to a budget package and a doubling of the state’s “flush tax” on Thursday night.

The House advanced the budget package and the tax increase on sewer bills after a marathon session that plodded on for more than nine straight hours.

At noon, drivers raised a noisy protest to tax proposals just outside the Maryland State House by driving around the building honking their horns while lawmakers debated. Some lawmakers peered out the windows to see what the ruckus was about.

Some drivers held signs or taped them to their vehicles.

One read, “Taxed Enough Already.”

One of the budget measures would increase the income tax on people who make more than $100,000 a year. It’s significantly scaled back from a Senate version of the bill, which would levy a quarter of a percent increase on most taxpayers.

The House also gave initial approval to the state’s $35.9 billion budget for the next fiscal year.

The “flush tax” increase would double from $30 annually to $60 to help upgrade sewage treatment plans.

Democrats who control the chamber shot down numerous Republican-sponsored amendments throughout the day. A provision to fund the state budget at the same level as last year was rejected, after Democrats said it would require cuts in health, education and public safety due to rising costs.

“We’ve cut state government agencies back probably as far as we want to go,” said Delegate John Bohanan, D-St. Mary’s. “On a per capita basis, they’ve never been as low as they are today since 1973.”

Democrats said Maryland is balancing the need to address its long-running budget deficit while preserving important priorities. Republicans, however, contended it was reasonable to limit spending to last year’s budget, and they criticized proposed tax increases before the General Assembly.

“This is the same thing that people across the state of Maryland have been doing for the last three years,” said Delegate
Herb McMillan, R-Anne Arundel. “Spending no more than you bring in is an idea whose time has come. Other states have done it. It’s time for us to do it.”

Maryland lawmakers are working to balance the books for this fiscal year as well as the next one, which begins July 1. They also are aiming to cut an ongoing $1.1 billion budget deficit by half. Part of the plan involves splitting teacher pension costs with counties. Currently, the state pays the entire cost. The Senate already has passed legislation to phase the split over four years. The House is working on its version of the plan, which would phase in the split over three years, saving the state more money sooner.

Supporters of the teacher pension split say the state simply can’t afford to shoulder the entire burden any longer, but
opponents say it will simply force local governments to raise taxes.

Delegate Kumar Barve, D-Montgomery, said more Maryland residents have been relying on state services due to the recession and its aftermath. He also said most of state spending goes to general areas of education, health and public safety. One consequence to level-funding the budget, he said, would be steep college tuition increases.

“I don’t want to reduce the amount of money we give to education, to health and to public safety,” Barve said. “I don’t
think that’s wise.”

The House rejected an amendment by Delegate Gail Bates, R-Howard, that would have withheld $100,000 from a state agency that failed to fix problems cited in a state audit after three years.

“When we don’t have accurate controls or appropriate controls over the money they’ve got, I find it very hard to tell my
taxpayers they need to pony up more money,” Bates said.

The House also approved a change to the state budget involving a simmering debate about how a Maryland law school clinic handles cases involving farmers. The House voted 91-46 to change a provision approved by the Senate that would shift $250,000 to pay for university lobbyists to create an agricultural law clinic dedicated to helping farmers comply with environmental laws.

Supporters of striking the Senate provision say it’s an example of heavy-handed micromanaging by the state over academia. But opponents of taking out the Senate provision say a message needs to be sent to the law clinic that it should beat up on farmers in court.

Earlier in the day, about 10 people drove around the road that circles the state capitol, honking their horns in protest of an array of tax proposals this session.

One horn honker, Carl Garrett, of Millersville, was pulled over by a police officer between the statehouse and the governor’s residence. He was given a $60 ticket for using his horn in a non-emergency situation.

“It seems like all they ever do is add more to the budget instead of trying to balance the budget with the money they’ve
got,” Garrett told reporters while waiting for the officer to write the ticket. “I mean, I’ve got to balance my budget with the money I’ve got. I don’t get to just go tell somebody to give me more money.”

The House also gave preliminary approval to a measure that would close loopholes several counties have been using to avoid spending as much on schools as they are required under law.

Any differences in the budget package between the House and Senate will need to be worked out before the April 9 adjournment.

(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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