By David Saleh Rauf
ANNAPOLIS (April 1, 2011) Senate and House budget writers Thursday moved slowly toward reconciling differences between the two chambers' spending plans.
In the first of several conference committees, a panel of lawmakers largely balked on most of the big-ticket items they need to hammer out before finalizing the state's fiscal 2012 budget.
Among the decisions shelved: Changes to the state's pension system and retiree prescription drug plan. Lawmakers also delayed decisions on higher education funding and how to distribute more than $20 million in revenue from a new alcohol tax pending House approval.
The panel, which spent about two hours huddled around a table dotted with bowls of potato chips and chocolates, decided to slash 450 mostly-vacant state positions. The House had sought to cut 650 positions, while Senate leaders proposed eliminating 347 positions.
Lawmakers agreed to shuffle about $20.1 million from the Chesapeake Bay 2010 Trust Fund to help plug budget holes. The panel also settled on funding three chaplains - for a total cost of about $184,000 - at a pair of hospitals outside of Baltimore.
Panel members agreed to make some cuts in the Department of Juvenile Services budget.
A $50,000 out-of-state-travel budget was slashed, a recommendation the House proposed in its budget. The panel also reduced the department's cell phone budget by $100,000. DJS spent $280,000 on cell phone costs in fiscal 2010.
Panel members ended up delving deeper into the troubled agency for a couple of minutes when they failed to reach an agreement on whether to require DJS to produce a report on how to fully fund the department's operations in fiscal 2012 and 2013. Legislative analysts estimate DJS was underfunded by $4.8 million in fiscal 2011 and $7.2 million in fiscal 2012.
The House budget required the department to produce a report that addresses "habitual underfunding for employee salaries and overtime expenses," but the Senate struck the language from its spending plan.
House Appropriations Chairman Norman Conway said the report would serve as a message to DJS to examine its internal operations.
"Somewhere at the top, someone needs to make decisions about what's being done there," said Conway," D-Wicomico. "We need to tell the secretary (of DJS) to take a good look at everything."
The panel delayed a decision on the DJS report.
The committee will meet again Friday at 3 p.m., and is expected to work Saturday.