Friday, January 11 – More Funding Cuts Loom For Assembly

BERLIN – While the opening of the 2008 Maryland General Assembly session this week might seem anti-climactic given the weighty decisions made during a special session late last year, there are many significant issues on the table including a considerable budget deficit still unresolved.

State lawmakers met in a special session in November to address the state’s growing $1.7 billion structural deficit and were largely successful in at least making a dent in the shortfall through sweeping tax changes, including several increases, and projected revenue growth, through a proposal to authorize slots subject to the approval of a statewide referendum next November.

However, as the new regular session convened this week, many state lawmakers are still not certain about the impacts of the actions taken during the special session in November, according to Sen. Lowell Stoltzfus (R-38), who said the chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation was hosting a briefing sometime today to assess the repercussions of the special session.

“We’re going to meet tomorrow [Friday] to sort out just what was accomplished during the special session,” he said. “At this point, we still don’t really know what we did. If you think about it, that’s an incredible statement.”

On the other side of the aisle, Delegate James Mathias (D-38B) said this week the actions in the special session did make major strides in addressing the deficit, but agreed there was probably about $250 million still to be resolved. Mathias cautioned substantial cuts to programs and local jurisdictions could still be on the way.

“We did do some of the heavy lifting as it relates to the budget during the special session, but there are still some financial issues out there. There is going to be another $250 million to resolve and significant reductions have to be made. Some of that, unfortunately, will flow back to the counties and towns,” he said.

As chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Delegate Norm Conway (D-38B) will be front and center on the financial issues facing the assembly. Conway said yesterday his committee has prepared a detailed list of recommended reductions it has forwarded to the governor.

“We still have a lot of work to do,” he said. “We’re still looking to the governor to reduce his 2009 budget by an additional $560 million and we’ve given a pretty specific direction for how to achieve that.”

Beyond the financial issues, the Assembly will consider several important societal issues during the 2008 session including the death penalty and same sex marriage, for example. There will also be a considerable number localized issues debated during the session.

Chief among them is a bill creating a special amusement tax district to help resolve the situation with Trimper’s and now Jolly Roger’s growing assessments. Stoltzfus said he fully supports the proposed legislation for the amusement tax district and is considering expanding similar protections to other businesses in the district.

“I’m considering a bill that goes beyond Ocean City and the problems there,” he said. “We’ve had some businesses in our district that have seen their assessments go up 1,300 percent. There is no way they can sustain that.”

Also on the table locally will be school construction funding requests for Pocomoke and Snow Hill High Schools, the completion schedule for the Route 113 dualization, critical nursing and physician shortages in rural areas such as Worcester, and the potential impacts of slots, should they be approved in the referendum.

“Depending on what happens with the referendum, there could be a huge impact on the entire region around Ocean Downs,” said Conway. “That could force the state to look immediately at improvements for Route 589.”