By George P. Matysek Jr.
Even as Gov. Martin J. O’Malley cut millions of dollars in spending when he outlined his $13 billion operating budget Jan. 19, he spared several funding priorities Catholic leaders had been lobbying to protect.
Key among them was a $4.4 million state program that loans nonreligious textbooks and technology to students in nonpublic schools. Social-safety net initiatives that help the poor were also protected.
While Catholic leaders were encouraged by education and outreach spending in this year’s budget, they expressed deep disappointment that the governor has maintained $12.4 million for stem cell research. Most of that money is directed to research that results in the destruction of human embryos.
“We have to question why this funding is going toward unethical research that’s showing no signs of curing anyone,” said Mary Ellen Russell, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference. “We hope lawmakers will eliminate the funding from the budget – or if they don’t cut it, that it would be devoted to ethical research with adult stem cells.”
The state is facing a $2 billion budget deficit – a hole the governor is trying to fill mainly with fund transfers, but also with some cuts, layoffs and other measures.
Maryland lawmakers are constitutionally required to pass a balanced budget.
The preservation of textbook funding was welcomed by the MCC, the legislative lobbying arm of the state’s Catholic bishops.
“At a time when so many of our families are facing significant financial struggles, this is very good news to see that funding for textbooks has been continued at last year’s level,” said Russell. “That’s consistent with education funding across the board being protected in the budget.”
The governor’s budget brings total funding for the public school system to a record $5.7 billion, increasing direct K-12 funding by $99 million.
Julie Walsh, MCC associate director for social concerns, was still analyzing the governor’s budget several days after it was released. In her initial review, she said it appears the governor made a real effort to protect social programs – many of which have already been subjected to previous cuts over the years.
“So far, it appears that the administration seems to be recognizing the severe staffing shortage in the Department of Human Resources,” Walsh said. “It appears that the department won’t be asked to cut its human service workers.”
Bishop Denis J. Madden joined other faith leaders in a Dec. 15 vigil at the Statehouse, urging the governor and lawmakers to protect programs that help the poor. He noted then that the number of welfare recipients has increased by 20 percent in the past year and that food stamp enrollees in Maryland have reached a record high of 527,000 – up 44 percent since 2007.
As lawmakers debate the budget, Russell said the MCC will “remain vigilant” in urging them to keep textbook funding at the level proposed by the governor and to avoid any temptation to cut social programs.
“I don’t envy any of the legislators being in the position they’re in right now with such a bare-bones situation,” Russell said. “We hope decisions will be made based on consideration for those in greatest need, not just on considerations connected with the upcoming election.”