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In Annapolis, budget concerns top the agenda

Rachel Baye

The General Assembly reconvenes in Annapolis in just more than a month, and one of the biggest issues facing members will be filling the state budget’s roughly $400 million deficit. On Friday, legislative leaders and a representative from the governor’s office made some predictions about what’s to come at the Maryland Association of Counties conference on the Eastern Shore.

While it’s not clear which state programs will face budget cuts, Senate President Mike Miller said something will be on the chopping block.

“We’re not going to raise any taxes. We’re not going to raise any fees,” he said. “We’re going to have to cut some programs.”

Neither Miller nor House Speaker Michael Busch offered specifics. They said they will have to wait and see what Gov. Larry Hogan proposes in his budget and go from there.

Still, Busch said there are really only a few places in the budget where cuts are possible.

One option is education. But Busch said governors have traditionally steered clear of cuts to public schools.

“So they go to corrections, public safety, which is a couple billion dollars in operating funds, and they go to Medicaid, which is about $600 million worth of federal and state funding together,” he said.

Both Miller and Busch said one possible way to address the deficit is by hiring more state employees on time-limited contracts, rather than as full-time workers.

Senate Minority Leader J.B. Jennings suggested trimming the so-called “mandated spending,” those items the state is required to pay for year after year.

Keiffer Mitchell, a senior adviser to the governor, said reducing those budget mandates is among Hogan’s top priorities.

“It’s alluded to that 80 percent of the budget — the state budget — is mandated spending,” he said. “Our revenues have increased by 3 percent, however spending continues to increase.”

In addition to the budget, lawmakers predicted legislation dealing with greenhouse gases and opioid addiction.

One of the first things the legislature is likely to do in January is override Hogan’s vetoes of bills passed the previous year. The leaders of both chambers expect to override Hogan’s veto of a bill requiring reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

Busch also suggested lawmakers take steps to address opioid addiction by directing more money to rehabilitation programs.

“One of the things the governor needs to address is how to get that money to health departments rather than police departments,” he said. “You’re not going to arrest your way out of this problem.”

Job creation is one of Hogan’s top priorities. Mitchell said to expect a bill aimed at creating jobs in high unemployment areas, such as Baltimore City, parts of Prince George’s County, the southern Eastern Shore and Western Maryland.

The lawmakers also said they are keeping an eye on President-elect Donald Trump’s plans.

“The bad news is that we’re a company town. We’re tied into the federal government,” said Miller. “And the president says he’s going to drain the swamp. That swamp — we’re dependent on those jobs.”

Jennings said he’s keeping an eye on changes to the Affordable Care Act.

“We don’t know what the president-elect is going to do with it, but whatever he does do is going to have a trickle-down effect on us here in the state,” he said.

Rachel Baye is a senior reporter and editor in WYPR's newsroom.
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