From the office of Del. Mary-Dulany James:
I guest-wrote a column to be published in the Aegis today, but I wanted to send you a preview of my comments, and a more thorough update on how the budget is progressing than the space allocated by the paper. Thankfully we have this far more accurate and thorough way to communicate!
At a distance this session may appear remarkably quiet, but this General Assembly has been one of the most challenging of my career. The lingering effects of the recession forced the State to reduce planned spending all while maintaining shared priorities and balancing the budget. As a fiscal leader on the Appropriations Committee, the budget is my primary focus.
Maryland is one of only a handful of triple-A bond rated states, meaning it is one of the best fiscally managed states in the country. While some triple-A rated states dipped into reserves this year, Maryland did not. We have close to $1 billion in cash and in our Rainy Day Fund. We balanced the budget. And, even in these tough times, the proposed budget eliminates $7 million in long-term retiree healthcare liability. In the final analysis, the State’s General Fund spending is at about the same level it was three years ago in the 2008 budget.
While we still have in the “out years” (beyond 2012) what is called a structural deficit (when planned spending for such things as community colleges and local aid for libraries exceed what our projected revenues will be in later years), this is so-called structural deficit has been reduced by 46% with a plan to close the balance in the coming two years.
And, as I said above, for 2012, our budget is balanced as it has to be. The House of Delegates was able to restore monies in a few places. We restored nearly $60 million to K-12 education funding – benefiting every county in the State ($2.7 million to Harford County, and $1.3 million to Cecil County). Our budget provides funding sufficient to keep tuition increases at our 4-year institutions at 3%, and an incentive program so our community colleges can cap tuition at 3%. We also responded to local governments’ needs by providing an additional $13 million for road maintenance ($1.15 million to Harford County, and $587,000 to Cecil County). While land preservation efforts in Maryland have been reduced, my Committee did reject a proposal to do away with Program Open Space, the national model started over 40 years ago to preserve Maryland’s most important natural resources.
Finally, understanding that only when the private sector bounces back will there be a sustained economic recovery, I have been working on improving the permitting process that local businesses have to go through before they can put people back to work. What is loosely called the construction industry has been the hardest hit in Maryland during this recession, down over 40% and accounting for over half of our unemployed. The people working in this area are the carpenters, plumbers, painters, builders, haulers, pavers, and numerous other skilled workers who are our neighbors and friends. This industry also employs our engineers, architects, and other like professionals. Collectively, they, and the companies they work for, have been working with me to have the State implement a “Fast Track” process that many counties already have to help expedite projects particularly significant to a local economy and/or job creation. It is important to note that these projects are not exempt from any permits or approvals such as environmental reviews, but rather having “Fast Track” at both the local and State levels means better coordination of State and local resources. Budget language has already passed the House and my Fast Track legislation appears to be prompting an Executive Order by the Governor that will go into effect immediately upon being signed. I should note that I introduced the bill last year and it resulted in the State Highway Administration making major changes in how that State agency processes permits important to our local construction industry. I believe this year the “Fast Track” process will be further refined and improved.
It is a pleasure to report this positive news regarding the budget and economic development. The hard work pays off when I am able to protect the priorities that matter most to people in Harford and Cecil counties. For more information about work I do, or to share your opinions and concerns, please contact me on the web at MaryDulanyJames.com, by e-mail at Mary.Dulany.James@house.state.md.us, or by calling at 410-841-3331. As always, it is my distinct honor to serve you.