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Senate gives unanimous approval to Hogan budget

ANNAPOLIS — The Maryland Senate on Thursday gave unanimous approval to an amended version of Gov. Larry Hogan’s $40.4 billion budget.

The Statehouse building in Annapolis, (Maximilian Franz / The Daily Record)

The Statehouse building in Annapolis, (Maximilian Franz / The Daily Record)

The vote marked the first time since Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. that the entire Senate voted in favor of the budget and perhaps more than a decade since the chamber agreed on the two-bill package that makes up the state’s operating budget spending plan, observers said.

The bill makes amendments to a House plan approved last week in a vote where 10 of the 50 Republican delegates voted against the budget bill.

Hogan, in a statement, praised the legislature for its work but said “the budget will not be completed without meaningful discussion on the many tax relief measures our administration has introduced for struggling Maryland families, small businesses, retirees, and veterans.”

The budget as passed by the House contains a $16.4 billion general fund spending plan.

Hogan said earlier this year that his plan would eliminate a $750 million structural deficit in his first year. Changes made by the legislature put the state on a path to eliminate 75 percent of the structural deficit in the fiscal 2016 budget year. Legislators said that figure could increase to as much as 88 percent if Hogan can accomplish the 2 percent across-the-board budget cuts to state agencies.

“For a decade it’s been our intent to rid ourselves of this burden,” Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, D-Howard and Baltimore Counties and chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, said of the structural deficit.

Key changes to the plan passed by the House include the restoration of 50 positions within the Maryland State Police. Legislators in the House deleted the positions but left the funding saying that the money could be used by Hogan to make the 2 percent spending cuts for the agency.

Also added by the Senate is a provision to eliminate the personal property taxes on cranes owned and used by the company that operates the Port of Baltimore for the state.

Del. Maggie McIntosh, D-Baltimore City and chair of the House Appropriations Committee, said the provision will be a sticking point because it will reduce city revenue by about $2 million annually.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Wednesday called on legislators to move on some of Hogan’s agenda and said that the Senate might approve a reduction in the cap on automatic increases to the state fuel tax. Such a reduction, if passed, would not result in a reduction of the tax or an elimination of the automatic increases.

One of the biggest amendment battles pitted Republicans against themselves as Sen. Bryan W. Simonaire, R-Anne Arundel County, attempted to strip out a Budget and Taxation Committee amendment providing $250,000 to dredge portions of Deep Creek Lake in Garrett County.

Simonaire argued that the amendment moved the project ahead of others already selected by the Department of Natural Resources and that it would delay other projects, specifically those in his home county. The Senate voted the amendment down in a voice vote and Simonaire, over Miller’s admonishment, demanded a roll call vote.

“I’m trying to save your caucus the roll call vote,” Miller said.

All but two Republicans voted against Simonaire’s amendment.

Hogan also expressed concern for some changes made by the legislature including using $75 million that was meant to supplement state contributions to the pension system. Instead, legislators opted to use the money as a way to partially pay for restoring a non-mandated education funding formula and a promised 2 percent raise to state employees. Both were victims of the budget ax in Hogan’s proposed budget.

Hogan, in his statement, said he “will be seeking assurances from leadership in the legislature to ensure that pension funding will be addressed in a responsible way. We cannot ignore our responsibility to current and retired state employees.”

The bill now moves to a conference committee, where both chambers will iron out a compromise spending plan. Also expected is a supplemental budget bill from Hogan that will ultimately have to be worked into a final budget before the legislature adjourns on April 13.