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'Age Of Aquarius' in Annapolis Ends In Party Line Budget Vote

Christopher Connelly/WYPR

  Maryland’s General Assembly went out of business for another year on Monday, ending a session that many hoped would signal the dawn of a new bipartisan era in a party line budget settlement.  Gov. Larry Hogan praised the legislature for its bipartisan work, but said he probably wouldn’t spend money Democrats set aside for public education, state worker pay and Medicaid and other safety net programs.

“Circumstances beyond our control kind of dictated where we are today, some politics, some substance, some petulance,” Senate President Mike Miller told his chamber after the party line budget vote. “And we tried our best. We think we have a good product here, but we certainly understand why everybody cast their vote the way they did.”

When Governor Larry Hogan introduced his budget, Democrats howled that he shorted public schools by $144 million dollars, reneged on a cost of living increase for state workers and slashed safety net funding. Then, they went about restoring the money. They paid for their priorities in part by reducing a supplemental pension payment. When Hogan pushed back late last week, Democrats dug in.

“We have done our jobs, it’s time for the second floor to do theirs,” said Senate President Mike Miller before the final budget deal went to vote.

Miller and the Democrats who lead the legislature accused Hogan of praising an earlier version of the budget deal that restored funding for schools, state worker pay and safety net programs, only to send down supplemental budgets late in the process demanding tax cuts, a fully restored pension payment and ignoring the Democratic priorities.

All but ten Republicans voted for an earlier version of the budget deal. Miller said the governor’s early support and the overwhelming approval in both chambers felt like the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.

When the final budget came up, not one Republican supported it. Many criticized the pension plan they approved earlier. Senate Republicans pointed to the removal of spending caps for future spending that were in the earlier budget they approved but were struck from the final product.

Democrats easily pushed through their budget plan, but it leaves more than $200 million earmarked for public education, state workers and safety net programs up to the governor to actually spend the money. Hogan said he’s unlikely to do that.

“We have to find the way to restore the money from the pension fund, which is a big problem,” Hogan said. Even as he panned the Democrats’ budget plan, Hogan praised them for working together with him on bipartisan initiatives. And he claimed the session as a victory. Not all of his priorities passed, he said, but he re-set the tone of the debate in Annapolis to center on fiscal restraint.

“There will be no tax increases in Maryland. That’s number one. Number two: This will be, no matter what happens, will be the lowest increase in state spending in decades,” Hogan said.

At the center of the budget fight is an extra pot of money for schools in districts where it costs more to run a school, called the Geographic Cost of Education Index. While the bulk of school funding is mandated by education formulas, the GCEI formula is supplemental. Gov. Hogan proposed funding GCEI at 50 percent in his original budget proposal. Democrats added another $68 million to fully fund the index.

“The cost of living is just so much higher in a Montgomery County or Prince George’s County compared for some of the other counties like a Garrett County,” said Sen. Nancy King. “So the extra funding, it just costs that much more to run a school in those counties.”

Democrats dusted off a long-stymied bill to make full GCEI funding mandatory. It would go into effect next year for just one year. But Democrats added a pointed provision: If Hogan fully funds GCEI this year, the mandate to fully fund GCEI next year is voided.

“It’s like if you pay the ransom you get your kid back,” quipped Sen. Justin Ready, R-Anne Arundel, on the floor.

Ready said the move will tie the hands of government and mandate spending increases. “It’s important not to make something that’s considered supplemental grant become mandatory. Then you’ve got to do it all the time to the Nth degree.”

With a Democratic majority in both chambers, the bill sailed through. “It’s very important for those counties to make sure that they have the resources in the classroom for their kids, for their teachers and the families that they serve,” said House Speaker Mike Busch.

Despite the simmering budget battle, lawmakers did pass bills on a huge range of issues. They voted to let people with minor, nonviolent criminal records shield their crimes for job searches. The legislature sent Hogan two bills aimed at curbing fracking. They made it easier to get a divorce, set rules governing police body cameras, instituted a temporary ban on powdered alcohol, and reformed the state’s charter law.

Those and hundreds of other bills go to the governor’s desk to be signed or vetoed -- including the education funding mandate.

“So, we’ll just have to wait and see what takes place in the interim,” Busch said.

Christopher Connelly is a political reporter for WYPR, covering the day-to-day movement and machinations in Annapolis. He comes to WYPR from NPR, where he was a Joan B. Kroc Fellow, produced for weekend All Things Considered and worked as a rundown editor for All Things Considered. Chris has a master’s degree in journalism from UC Berkeley. He’s reported for KALW (San Francisco), KUSP (Santa Cruz, Calif.) and KJZZ (Phoenix), and worked at StoryCorps in Brooklyn, N.Y. He’s filed stories on a range of topics, from a shortage of dog blood in canine blood banks to heroin addicts in Tanzania. He got his start in public radio at WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio, when he was a student at Antioch College.