Lawmakers Face Longer Session If Budget Agreement Not Reached

By KELLY WILSON, Capital News Service

ANNAPOLIS - With only a week remaining in the Maryland General Assembly's regular legislative session lawmakers still have not reached an agreement on the state budget, forcing Gov. Martin O'Malley to issue a constitutional order Tuesday extending the session by 10 days.

The move has become a common occurrence, legislators and State House staffers said.

Lawmakers usually get through the necessary budget reconciliations before the regularly scheduled end of the session, which falls on April 7 this year. They must stay for the extra time only if the budget is not passed by both chambers before that day.

Since last week, a bicameral conference committee has been working toward a consensus between the House and Senate on issues including funding for stem cell research and restricting the comptroller's allotment in the budget.

Legislators are also considering ways to repeal a computer services tax passed in November's special session to help fill a $1.7 billion budget gap.

The tax is highly unpopular but losing that revenue would mean more trouble for the state's budget, which must be balanced each year under Maryland's constitution.

The stem cell program was one of those hit hardest in the Senate's budget cuts as March brought the general assembly news of a $333 million revenue shortfall. The House budgeted $15 million, while the Senate allotted $5 million.

Delegate Norman Conway, D-Wicomico, a member of the conference committee, spoke in support of the House's high level of funding for the program at a committee meeting Friday.

He said medical institutions in other states along the East Coast are already taking advantage of the technology, which he said has the potential to improve the quality of life for many.

Another source of friction is a provision in the budget that would require Comptroller Peter Franchot to use the money provided for his office only for work associated with his official duties.

Lawmakers said last week that they were not aware of any specific incident that had prompted the provision.

Some committee members said the prohibitory language was unnecessary because there was no clear situation that the addition would address and it is not used in all department allotments.

However, the provision is similar to one included annually in the state's transportation budget, said Warren Deschenaux, director of policy analysis for the Department of Legislative Services.

Sen. James DeGrange, D-Anne Arundel, also a member of the conference committee, said the disagreements were minor and mostly centered around questions of specific funding figures.

House members also had a few concerns about the capital budget, he said, but repeated that those issues were also relatively minor.

DeGrange said the differences were likely to be resolved within the next day or two.

Fellow committee member Delegate John Bohanan, D-St. Mary's, also said the negotiations were largely finished.

The final touches could have been taken care of already, he said, but it would be easier for members to work through the details if they knew the fate of the computer services tax.

The 10-day extension is required by the Maryland constitution in any year in which the General Assembly has not reached a consensus on the budget by the 83rd day of the session, which passed Monday.

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