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(The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

Democrats pass budget despite Hogan’s opposition

Hogan aide says governor may not spend 'fenced-off' money

ANNAPOLIS — State lawmakers in the House and Senate overwhelmingly passed a budget package over the objections of Gov. Larry Hogan hours before the end of the 2015 Maryland General Assembly session.

A conference committee agreement hammered out by the House and Senate was passed by party line votes of 90-39 and 33-13, respectively.

Earlier in the day, Democratic legislative leaders said they continued to work toward a budget compromise with Hogan, the Republican, but expressed some frustration as they enter the final hours of the 2015 session.

The vote ended what was a practical stalemate. Both sides had expressed hope that  negotiations would bridge the divide between a conference committee’s compromise and Hogan’s desire to for a fiscally sound budget that didn’t use money initially intended to ease an underfunded pension fund.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said late Monday afternoon that he “hasn’t heard from the governor since this morning.

“We can’t negotiate against ourselves,” Miller said.

Hogan, for his part told reporters that he also had not heard from legislators.

The vote was not unexpected. Legislative leaders made it clear they would pass the budget before the end of the 90-day session rather than go into an extended session that would begin tomorrow.

Lawmakers from both the House and Senate met over the weekend to craft a budget compromise that reconciled differing spending plans passed in each chamber. Hogan Friday sent down a third supplemental budget that proposed to strike $75 million in additional pension payments that the General Assembly sought to use to help pay for a 2 percent cost-of-living increase to state employees and to fully fund a non-mandatory education formula. Hogan funded neither in the budget he proposed in January, just one day after being sworn in.

“The governor has the money to do that,” Miller said of the House and Senate compromise budget.

Miller told reporters he thought the overwhelming passage of the budget in both the House and the Senate signaled an “Age of Aquarius” where the governor and legislature worked together.

“You go through 86 days of singing ‘Happy Days are Here Again’ to hear Friday before the end of the budget process that we’re going to take $75 million off the table and we need to negotiate down things that we previously funded,” said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.

Miller has been an ally to Hogan in the legislature, but Monday, 14 hours before the close of the 2015 session, he had strong words for the governor.

“We can’t negotiate against ourselves and we’re not going to go backwards on public education,” Miller said. “We’re not going to go backwards in terms of our state employees. We’re not going to go backwards in terms of our Medicaid family.

“Now is not the time to negotiate. Now is the time to legislate and move forward,” Miller said.

He and other legislators said they wanted Hogan to continue to support a budget he said he approved of when the Senate passed it late last month

“Three weeks ago, we heard form the governor on the budget — he told us he was happy with it,” said House Speaker Michael E. Busch.

“This should be a point where all sides come together and declare that they did what was in the best interests of the citizens of the state from a democratic process,” Busch said.

Republicans in the Senate were ready to vote against the conference committee plan.

“All 14 Republicans supported the budget two weeks ago when we passed it in the Senate,” said Sen. J.B. Jennings, R-Baltimore and Harford County and the Senate minority leader. “It was a fiscally responsible budget. It brought the deficit under control. The conference committee that met last week really dynamically changed that.”

Ultimately, the vote became a party call and Republicans in both chambers voted against the compromise worked out by House and Senate Democrats without the governor.

Similarly, Douglass Mayer, a spokesman for Hogan, said the governor’s support was for the Senate version of the budget.

“The conference committee, what they did is not what the Senate passed,” Mayer said. “It’s different, and that’s where the problem is here.”

Legislators appear worried that Hogan will keep his word and not use $200 million that was fenced off to pay for education, raises, Medicaid and other priorities. Lawmakers cannot force the governor to spend the money but they can place restrictions on how he spends it.

The hope over the last few weeks was that Hogan, who has tried to paint himself as a fiscally conservative governor who is willing to work with Democrats, would seek to avoid a political hit that might come with deciding not to spend the money.

But Hogan continues to send a message that he will not spend the money if it means continuing structural deficits into the future and not contributing more to a state pension system that is only 68 percent funded.

“The governor said on Saturday that he can’t spend the fenced-off money,” Mayer said. “That budget is no longer as fiscally responsible as the governor needed it to be. He can’t spend that money.”

Mayer said the conference committee budget will put the state in a “$250 million hole for this year (fiscal 2016).”

Mayer said Hogan’s proposed compromise would move “back closer to what the Senate did” while also withdrawing the last two supplemental budget proposals, dropping the controversial proposed spending for non-public schools, while providing 75 percent of the non-mandatory education spending and fully funding state employee raises.

Funding Medicaid and other priorities not covered in Hogan’s compromise proposal would be left to Democrats to decide how to best handle, Mayer said.