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Campus funding uncertain

April 06, 1999|By LAURA ERNDE

ANNAPOLIS - Local lawmakers are worried that state seed money for a University of Maryland campus in Hagerstown might be in jeopardy.

Not only does the money largely depend on passage of a $1-per-pack cigarette tax increase, but on Tuesday budget analysts recommended that it be cut regardless of the cigarette tax vote.

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Gov. Parris Glendening earmarked $150,000 to plan the campus in a proposed $153 million supplemental budget released Monday.

In making the proposal, Glendening assumed the state would raise $150 million from an increase in the tobacco tax. The House of Delegates has passed a tax increase of 50 cents this year and 50 cents next year. The Senate has not yet voted on the tax.

On Tuesday, the Maryland Department of Legislative Services dealt another blow to the project by advising lawmakers to cut the campus money out of the 2000 budget.

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Instead, the project should come through the University System of Maryland's capital improvement program, which reviews and prioritizes building plans.

Although a cut wouldn't stop the $12 million campus from being built off Interstate 70 at Downsville Pike, it would delay it for at least a year.

As members of powerful money committees in the legislature, Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, and Del. Sue Hecht, D-Frederick/Washington, both said they would fight to keep the money for the campus in the budget.

At this point, however, much of the decision-making is out of their hands.

A tobacco tax increase is likely to pass the Senate although it may not be the full $1 per pack. Munson continues to oppose any tax increase.

A conference committee, on which there are no local members, must decide what, if any, budget cuts to make. Meanwhile, the committee is working to resolve differences in Senate and House versions of the budget.

"At this point I have no inkling. Things are so much up in the air. It's even hard to know if we'll have a budget," Munson said.

Hecht was less optimistic.

"It is going to be a far shot, especially if the tobacco tax doesn't pass. We're still trying, but it's not going to be an easy battle," she said. "It's almost out of our hands now."

Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, said this is not the first time a budget analyst has recommended cutting a Washington County project that eventually got funded.

"I don't think we should be deterred by what an analyst has to say about it. It's a project that's certainly important to the community and we'll continue to fight for it," he said.

Washington County Commissioner Paul Swartz said he's confident lawmakers will see the wisdom of preserving the planning money.

"I hope we're not pushed back a year in all the plans. I hope we're able to keep schedule. I have the faith that we will," he said.

The county has pledged $500,000 for planning. Land for the campus has been donated by Allegheny Power.

Budget analysts also recommended cutting money to study whether the state should build a nursing home for veterans in Washington County. That came as a surprise to county lawmakers who were assured its place in the budget was secure.

"That was outrageous," Hecht said.

The budget analysts' rationale - the state's only veterans' home in Charlotte Hall, Md., has 120 empty beds.

Munson said he convinced the analysts that the $100,000 study is needed. Western Maryland veterans don't use the Southern Maryland home because it is too far from their family and friends.

Washington County has one of the highest concentrations of veterans in the state, Hecht said.

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