Gov. Martin O'Malley's budget for next year was approved by the Senate after an unusually brief debate Wednesday in a sign of the state's improved fiscal condition.
Senators voted 42-5 to pass the $36.8 billion budget and send it to a conference committee with the House. All 35 Democrats and seven Republicans voted in favor of the budget, which comes close to eliminating what was once a nearly $2 billion long-term revenue shortfall.
"I can't remember any time the budget was adopted by a larger margin." said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. Unlike the current budget, which runs through June 30, next year's is not accompanied by tax increase to bring it into balance.
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Miller put the bill on a fast track, holding both a preliminary and a final vote on a single day. He told senators he wants to start negotiations with the House quickly in order to avoid a repeat of last year's end to the 90-day session, when contentious budget negotiations dragged into the final hours of the last day. As a result of the chaotic conclusion, companion bills to the budget did not pass before time ran out, resulting in a special session to pass a budget fix.
"We're not going to duplicate the bad results of the end of the session last year," Miller said. He said there are still "stark" differences with the House over such matters as pensions and education aid to rural counties but added that the gap is not as great as last year's.
Before the final vote, Republican senators put up a token resistance during a budget amendment process that took less than an hour -- far less time than it usually takes. They offered only six amendments -- one agreed to by the budget committee and five rejected by wide margins. Unlike in past years, none of the GOP amendments focused on the overall size of the budget. Instead they focused on such policy issues as school security, abortion and stem cell research.
Senate Minority Leader E. J. Pipkin, an Eastern Shore Republican, said the high level of GOP support for the budget reflects the fact more revenue is coming in because of past years' tax increases.
"This year was different," he said. "This year was about dividing up the pie."
Pipkin himself opposed the budget, complaining that it grows by $1 billion over this year's spending level.
Miller, a Calvert County Democrat, attributed the strong bipartisan support to an improved economy, increased employment and increased spending on social programs.