House approves $35.8 billion budget and pension shift
The House of Delegates approved their version of the state’s $35.8 billion budget Friday, moving the process into its final stage to resolve differences with the Senate.
The budget bill was approved 95-43, but not before Republican lawmakers attempted one last time to derail its passage. They described the budget, which would increase state spending by $1 billion for the 5th year in a row, as fiscally irresponsible and destructive. The Democratic chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Norman Conway, had repeatedly called it “fiscally prudent and socially responsible.”
Republicans argued that casting a red vote would be an opportunity to send the budget bill back to committee in order to address their concerns. During the previous day’s 11-hour session, every Republican amendment had been rejected.
GOP says budget kicks citizens “when they’re down”
Voicing his opposition to the bill, House Republican Leader Anthony O’Donnell said he understood why few Democrats were standing in support of the bill. “I wouldn’t want to defend this thing in front of those cameras either,” O’Donnell said, motioning toward television crews.
Echoing criticisms he directed at the budget bill Thursday, O’Donnell said legislators were “kicking our citizens when they’re down.”
Calling O’Donnell’s bluff, House Democratic Leader Kumar Barve defended the bill. Barve reminded legislators that the state was entering its 51st year with a triple-A bond rating while the state’s public school system was ranked best in the country and higher education continues to remain affordable.
“In Maryland, as in most of America, during recessions more people need government help services,” Barve said. “That is why in many instances we have to increase spending.”
Responding to Barve’s description of the state’s public school system, Del. Michael McDermott, R-Wicomico, said it was the “best school system that debt can buy.”
Other Democrats joined Barve in countering criticism, including St. Mary’s County Del. John Bohanan, who said committees placed funding aspirations in the budget that are often adjusted with reality. Bohanan, chair of the education appropriations subcommittee, said this creates an expectation in the budget for the next fiscal year.
Two Baltimore County Democrats, Joseph Minnick and Michael Weir, voted against the budget bill while only one Republican, Wendell Beitzel of Garrett County, a member of the Appropriations Committee, voted for it, as he did last year.
After brief debate, the House also approved the Budget Reconciliation and Financing Act (BRFA) 88-50, despite a break in the Democratic ranks.
Shifting teacher pensions to counties
The most controversial aspect of the BRFA bill shifts teacher pension costs to county governments. The proposal has faced fierce opposition from teachers across the state and legislators who believe the costs could be too much for local governments to bear.
Six Montgomery County Democrats, one of the chamber’s most liberal delegations, and two other Democratic lawmakers, joined Republicans in voting against the bill because of the pension shift.
Supporters argued that forcing local governments to share in the expense of pensions was a difficult but necessary step. Opponents, however, said it threatened to bankrupt county governments. Beitzel was again the sole Republican to vote in favor of the bill.
The House and Senate must now work out their differences on the budget in a conference committee.