A few budget issues could be tough to resolve
The House and the Senate take turns on which chamber will deal with the state's annual budget first, and this year was the House's turn. That chamber last night passed a $13.9 billion operating budget after cutting out about $850 million. There's some talk in the Senate about what could be a big, fundamental shift in state budgeting -- the idea of freezing mandated spending formulas -- but it's unclear how far along those discussions are. Even if that doesn't materialize, there are a handful of issues that could become big arguments when the two chambers meet in conference committee.
*Stem cell research: The House wants to spend $18.4 million but the Senate wants to cut that to $5 million. The moral issue over whether the state should fund that kind of research was settled a few years ago, but does the federal government's recent loosening of pursestrings for embryonic stem cell research obviate the need for a large state investment? Or does Maryland need to keep it up to stay competitive with other states?
*Medevac helicopters: The House is
sticking with expanding on Gov. O'Malley's proposal and plans to spend $55 million to begin replacing the state's fleet. One Senate committee has endorsed a plan to delay the purchase, but the Budget and Taxation Committee has yet to say whether it will keep the money in the budget. If Maryland starts replacing helicopters, it would effectively shut out a private medevac operator that has been trying to crack into the business here. Watch for some heavy lobbying on both sides of this one.
*Higher education: The House is planning steeper cuts for the University System of Maryland than the Senate has endorsed so far. System Chancellor Britt Kirwan has already raised the alarm about tuition increases if the cuts stand. O'Malley has made a huge political point out of tuition freezes, so watch for him to do whatever it takes to keep them.