By BRADY HOLT
ANNAPOLIS (Feb. 24, 2010) - Republican lawmakers recommended cutting hundreds of millions of dollars from Gov. Martin O'Malley's proposed budget Tuesday, presenting their visions for a long-term resolution to ongoing state financial woes.
A joint session of the House and Senate heard two independent proposals, one from the House GOP Caucus and the other from two senators, responding to Democratic calls for specific ideas from the state's minority party on ways to reduce spending.
"It is time for all hands on deck," Sen. Ulysses Currie, D-Prince George's, who chairs the Budget and Taxation Committee, said at the budget hearing. "I look forward sincerely to hearing ideas from my colleagues on the other side of the aisle."
The hearing's proposals included large-scale layoffs, shifts of hundreds of millions of dollars in teacher pension obligations to counties and cuts to higher education—cuts that the Republican legislators said would let the state avoid furloughs and roll back recent tax increases.
"We have no illusions about the difficult nature of some of these recommendations," said Minority Leader Anthony O'Donnell, R-Calvert. "Sometimes the medicine to fix an illness is a bitter pill to swallow."
The proposed spending cuts would resolve the state's long-term structural deficit within a few years, the Republican legislators said.
House minority leaders presented $830 million in line-item spending reductions for the 2011 fiscal year, with projected savings per cut ranging from up to $258 million from a proposed change to Medicare coverage for retired state employees to $200,000 for eliminating the three chefs employed at the governor's mansion.
Of the latter, O'Donnell said the removal of the chefs was largely "symbolic, but symbology is important."
The House plan further calls for more than 1,500 layoffs—1,000 in the University System of Maryland alone—but removes O'Malley's proposed furloughs, which Minority Whip Christopher Shank, D-Washington, said "demoralized" the state workforce.
Other cuts in the House GOP proposal included $100 million from local road aid to Baltimore, $126 million in education aid to counties with high costs of living and $20 million in Bay restoration.
Senate Republican leadership declined to participate in Tuesday's hearing. Minority Leader Allan Kittleman, R-Carroll, wrote off the invitation to offer budget suggestions in the joint session as a "partisan political stunt."
"It wasn't designed to obtain information. It was designed to be a media circus," Kittleman said.
Two Republican senators, David Brinkley, Frederick, and E. J. Pipkin, Caroline, did speak at the hearing, representing themselves rather than their entire caucus.
The senators called for the state to reduce higher education funding to 2007 levels, pass half the cost of teachers' pensions to local jurisdictions and cut a further 1 percent of its positions—with projected savings of $450 million, $46 million and $20 million, respectively.
Democratic legislators offered mixed reviews of the Republican proposals.
Delegate John Bohanan, D-St. Mary's, and the chair of the Spending Affordability Committee, said after the hearing that he had appreciated seeing specific proposals but that these ideas were unremarkable.
Republican legislators had called for much steeper cuts at his committee in December, Bohanan said, adding that he wasn't surprised to see less severe action after they went searching for specifics.
"I think it really points to the difficulty of finding cuts that can be made," Bohanan said after the hearing. "I don't know that I heard anything new."
But Delegate Murray Levy, D-Charles, a member of the Appropriations Committee, raved about the hearing once it concluded.
Levy said it was too soon to determine whether the proposals presented were good ideas, but praised the procedure for bringing maturity and accountability to the budget process.
"This invitation to them is going to turn out to be a very good thing, because there really is now a substantial and substantive debate on the state's budget as opposed to political posturing," Levy said. "I think the Republicans responded in a very positive way. You know, they're putting themselves on the line also, with these cuts. So I think it's a good thing."
Levy said he was also surprised at the "depth of the specifics" in the Republican proposals.
"That's never happened before," he said. "It's always been 'cut the budget, cut 2 percent, cut 3 percent in some way, and this really calls them to sharpen their pencils and come up with some specifics."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.