Maryland Senate votes for $50B plan to balance state budget

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — The Maryland Senate unanimously approved a plan Thursday to balance the state budget during the next fiscal year, with enormous help from the federal government to respond to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lawmakers in both parties used words like “stunning” and “unique” to describe how federal aid reshaped an ominous budget quandary last year into the ability to address projected deficits through fiscal year 2024. The state’s revenues also held up better than initially expected shortly after the pandemic began.

Sen. Guy Guzzone, a Howard County Democrat who chairs the Senate’s budget committee, said the state is now in a position he could not have imagined “in my wildest dreams last year.”

“You just can’t even imagine, when we think when this all started a year ago, that we were all looking at $4 billion, $6 billion in the hole,” Guzzone said.

The chairman expressed gratitude for the federal help and described a “high sense of responsibility for doing what’s right now for the people who need it.”

“It was a fortunate thing in many ways, but there was a higher sense of responsibility that I found, knowing that we were getting this one-time money and that we had to do the very best for the citizens of Maryland right now, and yet plan out and prepare for the future, and I believe we’ve done that,” Guzzone said.

Sen. George Edwards, the ranking Republican on the budget panel, said lawmakers had to focus on how to best use “money flowing down from the government like it’s springing up from an artesian well,” describing a hole in the ground from which water is forced to the surface by natural pressure.

“This is probably the most unique budget that we’ve dealt with, since I’ve been in the Legislature, anyway,” said Edwards, who has been a legislator since 1983 and represents Garrett and Allegany counties as well the western part of Washington County.

Edwards also thanked Guzzone for being “very allowing” of the minority party’s participation in the budget process.

“This is the way things should work, where you have some unity ... even though you don’t agree on everything, you get your point of view in,” Edwards said.

The House already has voted on its version of the roughly $50 billion spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The two chambers will work on reconciling some differences before the legislature’s scheduled adjournment on April 12.

The measure provides more than $1 billion to respond to the pandemic in legislation that Gov. Larry Hogan and lawmakers prioritized early in the legislative session. It authorizes $687 million in state spending and provides about $585 million in targeted tax relief to support recovery.

“Most importantly, it significantly places the state in an advantageous position to continue supporting individuals, particularly low-income earners, and businesses that continue to be impacted as we transition out of this pandemic,” Del. Maggie McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the House budget committee, said last when the House took up the legislation.

The measure shores up the state pension system by allotting an extra $170 million. Lawmakers also maintained a commitment to its sweeping K-12 education funding overhaul to improve schools over the next decade.

The budget plan leaves about $1.8 billion in reserves for the future. That includes $1.1 billion in the state’s rainy day fund, or about 5.6% of the state’s general fund revenues. It also includes a fund balance of about $675 million in the general fund.