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Md. legislative session opens this week

January 09, 1999|By LAURA ERNDE

A local University of Maryland campus, a new building for the Hagerstown YMCA and electricity deregulation are three issues the Maryland General Assembly is likely to tackle during the upcoming session, local lawmakers said.

State lawmakers will play a key role in getting financing for a university campus in Washington County, said Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington.

The legislative session begins Wednesday and lasts until mid-April.

The campus probably would be established with one building, paid for through the state university budget, Munson said.

Students there could earn bachelor's, graduate and professional degrees, officials said when they announced the plan last month.

A location has not been determined.

The Hagerstown YMCA is seeking $1 million to $2 million to help build a new $6.9 million facility on Eastern Boulevard.

The community has raised more than $3.9 million of its $5 million goal.

The new facility will include two pools, two gymnasiums, a fitness center, a child-care center, teen and senior facilities, meeting rooms and administrative offices.

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A committee is studying reuse of the North Potomac Street building.

"We want to make sure the YMCA (building) doesn't become a rundown slum and we don't have a homeless explosion," said Del.-elect Christopher B. Shank.

The issue of electricity deregulation is complex and not attention-grabbing, but very important, lawmakers said.

Most people associate deregulation with lower utility bills.

But Munson said that might not happen in Western Maryland.

There is a movement among some lawmakers to shift costs from the state's two other power companies to Allegheny Power, which produces power more economically, he said.

"This is an issue that the public needs to be wary of," Munson said.

Munson and Del. Robert A. McKee, who both serve on a committee studying the effects of deregulation on taxes, said they hope to shield local customers from any rate increases.

Local legislators also will be watching how deregulation affects two of the area's largest businesses - Allegheny Power and Alcoa Eastalco Works, said Del. Sue Hecht, D-Frederick/Washington.

The Frederick County, Md., aluminum plant is the largest energy customer in Maryland, paying $65 million to $70 million a year for electricity.

Another issue that may return again this year is state funding of an $8.9 million minor league baseball stadium.

The Hagerstown Suns have $2 million pledged from private businesses.

But they still need monetary commitments from the City of Hagerstown and the Washington County Commissioners.

Team owner Winston Blenckstone has been trying for three years to get a new stadium.

Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II backs the idea but is still looking for a way to fund the city's $2.5 million share without using city property taxes.

The Washington County Commissioners say they are willing to consider the idea.

The proposed location is at Interstate 81 and Salem Avenue in Hagerstown.

"Until both the city and the county get on board, it's not an issue we'll have to pay a lot of attention to," said McKee, chairman of the Washington County delegation.

Two of the eight delegation members - Munson and Shank - said they would not support state funding for a stadium.

"I don't think the enthusiasm for building stadiums is there anymore," Munson said.

But McKee, R-Washington, believes the delegation would be willing to work for state money if there is strong local commitment.

In recent years, tip jar gambling has been a big issue for the delegation.

But so far this year, no bills have been proposed, McKee said.

This year, the delegation will concentrate on improving its relationship with the County Commissioners, which was strained by last year's union issue.

In March, the County Commissioners abolished the collective bargaining rights of its employees.

They were upset when the delegation passed legislation that forced the county to recognize the union.

The law is set to expire June 30.

McKee promised a better relationship with the new group of County Commissioners, four out of five of whom took office in December.

"I think there's a great team assembled at the County Commissioners. I think we'll work well together," said Shank, R-Washington.

In recent years, residents have also pleaded for help with increasing water and sewer bills in Washington County.

In the past, lawmakers' efforts have been unsuccessful, McKee said.

Shank said he hopes someone will come forward with an innovative idea that the delegation can pursue.

As part of a campaign promise, Shank said he also will pursue an exemption to the Vehicle Emissions Inspection Program for county residents.

One member of the delegation was less interested in local issues than working on statewide issues such as tax cuts and education reform.

"The biggest thing is to stop the liberals from ruining our country any more than they already have," said Sen.-elect Alex X. Mooney, R-Frederick/Washington.

Mooney also vowed to work against a proposed gas tax increase.

Statewide, lawmakers say the increase is needed to pay for highway construction.

Munson said more and more of the gas tax is going toward mass transportation to the detriment of rural counties.

Hecht said residents of Washington and Frederick counties benefit from mass transit such as the MARC train station planned for Frederick.

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