A Budget Problem

Gallup 2014 Maryland Scorecard. Click image for a larger view.

With an approaching budget deficit in the $600 million range, both experts and state political figures predict 2015 to be the year of the budget.

“Unless the estimates are wildly off and the state’s able to generate a lot more revenue than they expect, I think the budget is going to be the first, the second and the third issue” facing legislators in Annapolis, said Irwin Morris, American politics professor and chair of the Department of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland.

Adding pressure to the situation, Republican Gov.-elect Larry Hogan ran on a platform of cutting taxes for Maryland’s residents and businesses. Combined with the state’s need for revenue, many are predicting a lively budget process. While state legislators may not add to the budget, they can suggest decreases or restrictions of appropriations.

The state has dealt with deficits in the past, said Morris, but none on this scale. He predicted that the governor-elect will try to make the toughest cuts this session in the hopes that seemingly easier cuts in the future may be what stick in voters’ minds in the next election cycle.

“What concerns me a little bit is that the estimates for the deficit have grown,” said Morris. “I think this may be a little bit more problematic than in the past for several reasons, because you have a cut-taxes platform that the governor ran on and because it looks like the size of the deficit is growing.”

John Bullock, an assistant professor of political science at Towson University, said he expects there to be some battles on the floor about the budget, specifically with what services to cut. He expects some of the taxes and fees that were passed during outgoing Gov. Martin O’Malley’s tenure, such as the stormwater management fee popularly known as the “rain tax,” as well as corporate tax rates, to be under fire.

“Large decisions have to be made about where that extra money is going to be coming from,” Bullock said.

Local representatives such as Del. Dana Stein (D-District 11) don’t expect it to be an easy process. The budget gap is substantial, he said, and there isn’t much more excess the legislature can trim from the budget. He expects Hogan may look to change the K-12 education formula to help recoup some funds, but that would be controversial in the legislature, Stein said.

Stein said at least one fallout from the shortfall will be higher college tuition rates, especially since higher education will likely not see additional state funding. Local governments seem to be nervous about their state funding as well, he said.

“My take is that [the legislature] will be willing to work with [Hogan] where we can, at least with respect to budget issues,” Stein explained, adding that there are likely to be concerns in both parties about the budget.

Del. Samuel “Sandy” Rosenberg (D-District 41) agreed that the budget would be the primary focus of the session.

“We’ll see what his priorities are” when Hogan submits his budget Jan. 23, said Rosenberg. Until the budget is proposed, he added, it is difficult to predict how much controversy may arise from it and how the legislature will react.

Though he thinks the budget will be the biggest issue, he doesn’t think the task of balancing it will prove as insurmountable as some are depicting.

“We have had similar budget deficits at the outset of the session, and we have done what we needed to do to truly balance the budget and maintain the Triple-A bond rating from Wall Street,” Rosenberg insisted.

Another issue Rosenberg anticipates making an appearance in the 2015 session, which begins Jan. 14, is pre-kindergarten funding. As part of a deal encouraging the expansion of early education, Maryland receives millions of dollars in federal funding every year. Starting soon though, the state has to find a way to match the federal funds with state funding. Anticipating a possible challenge, Rosenberg said the legislature may have to prepare itself to fight on behalf of the program.

Rosenberg also expects the Committee on Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review, on which he sits, to find itself readdressing some of the issues it dealt with in the past as the new governor works to follow through on campaign promises to reform the state’s regulatory processes.

“We do have a host of issues that weren’t issues during the campaign, where the governor-elect has not had to say, ‘This is what I would do if elected governor,’” said Rosenberg. “Over the four-year period, inevitably, there will be a host of issues that come up, legitimate issues that the legislature will address and so will the governor, and we’ll both be judged, both branches will be judged, on how we deal with that host of issues over the next few years.”

In the meantime, said Rosenberg, social service programs are left to wait and hope that their funding won’t be subject to budget cuts. Constituents of his who have children in public schools are concerned about the potential for cuts to school funding, he said, city residents in his district are worried about funds for the ongoing improvement projects in the Mount Washington schools, and Jewish residents who send their children to day schools are concerned about keeping what funds those schools do receive from the state. Additionally, he added, there is concern about state funding that supports programs run by The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

Click image for a larger view.
Click image for a larger view.

At a recent meeting of the Baltimore Jewish Council, deputy executive director Cailey Locklair Tolle said the council will be watching the budget closely, especially funding for agencies of The Associated.

“We are making sure that people within the governor-elect’s administration who are helping to craft the budget are very aware of our priorities,” she said. “Our message is being carried in as many ways as we can possibly carry it.”

She and other BJC officials have been meeting with Hogan since last January.

Tolle also highlighted some of the BJC’s budget priorities. Those include funding for power upgrades and climate control at Sinai Hospital; a diabetes medical home extender program; an increase in funding for the Maryland Israel Development Center that would allow a member in Israel to work full-time for the organization; the Supportive Community Network, which helps keep seniors in their homes; domestic violence prevention programs; and the Elder Abuse Center, among others. The BJC is also focusing on mental health and nonpublic school funding.

Another major change is the 2015 session will be the influx of new legislators. With redistricting and retirements, a total of 58 new delegates and 11 new senators will take office this month. Del.-elect Shelly Hettleman (D-District 11), who will sit on the Appropriations Committee, is one of those newcomers.

“As a new member of the Appropriations Committee I’m in a good position to be helpful to the Jewish community’s funding priorities,” Hettleman said via email, adding that she plans to advocate on behalf of some of the BJC’s priorities such as funding for upgrades to Sinai Hospital and Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center and Hospital, maintenance of Northwest Hospital’s domestic violence program and support for the MIDC.

A former government relations director for the BJC, Hettleman said she will also back financing for programs for the elderly in the northwest Baltimore region.

In addition to getting to know her fellow legislators and attending various orientations for her new role, Hettleman has been fielding calls and emails from citizens of her district.

“Residents of the 11th District have begun to contact me about their constituent service concerns,” she said. “I’ve also been hearing from them about specific topics such as animal rights, state services for the disabled community and concerns about the budget. A church in the community that is seeking state aid for their refugee resettlement efforts has also asked me to help them.”

Sen. Bobby Zirkin (D-District 11) ran unopposed in the fall election, but will begin his new role as chair of the Judicial Proceedings Committee this session. Prior to the appointment, he served as a member on the committee for four years.

In addition to the budget, Zirkin anticipates much of 2015 to be spent smoothing out technicalities in laws passed in the last legislative session. In particular, he believes there is still a lot of work to do on the medical marijuana front and the state’s handling of a 2012 decision declaring that indigent defendants are entitled to legal representation at bail hearings. Last session, Attorney General-elect Brian Frosh, who was then chair of the committee, addressed the problem by applying a computer system that sets bail. Zirkin said he expects to revisit the issue in the next few months.

New issues he said the General Assembly will likely have to tackle in 2015 are hydraulic fracturing and police body cameras, two controversial topics.

The idea of equipping police officers with body cameras has been steadily gaining steam across the country in the wake of several claims of police brutality and excessive force in the summer and fall. In Baltimore, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake vetoed a bill that would have required officers to wear cameras last month, but went on to say that she supports the concept and wants to see it implemented efficiently.

“When worn effectively, body cameras can increase accountability and transparency for our police force, but we need to make sure that we address a number of concerns, ranging from cost to privacy,” Rawlings-Blake said in October.

On hydraulic fracturing, a technology also known as fracking, Zirkin, who is vehemently against it, said he hopes the state follows in the footsteps of New York state’s recent ban.

“It would be a health and environmental disaster,” he said of allowing fracking, which uses water and chemicals to extract natural gas from below shale rocks, to begin in Maryland. “I think it’s a horrendous thing to do.”

Stein, who takes on two new assignments this session as vice chair of the environment and transportation committee as well as chair of the subcommittee on natural resources and agriculture, expects a front row seat to both the debates over fracking and stormwater management fees.

“Our committee will be ground zero for those debates,” he said. “I know there will be legislation to create a moratorium pending a review of public health outcomes of fracking.”

He plans to introduce a renewable energy bill that will provide incentives for business to produce renewable thermal energy, a bill putting limitations on how long a dog can be tethered outside in extreme weather conditions and a bond bill that would support a forthcoming capital campaign for renovations at the Pikesville Volunteer Fire Department.

Stein’s District 11 colleague Del. Dan Morhaim (D) also plans to work on some environmental issues. He plans to look into microbeads, a microscopic plastic used in toothpaste and soap that is non-biodegradable. His students at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health made a presentation on the issue, which Morhaim wasn’t previously familiar with.

“You can’t pollute the environment at the bottom of the food chain,” he said. “If you think of all the toothpaste and soap used every single day and all that’s washed into the rivers and the bay, what’s going to happen?”

While Morhaim has generally been opposed to fracking, he is introducing a fracking disclosure bill that would require fracking companies — were fracking to go forward — to disclose chemicals they use and what they know about them to the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. This would allow health providers to evaluate certain conditions if they happen to arise in people near fracking sites.

hnorris@jewishtimes.com; mshapiro@jewishtimes.com

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