Governor's 'accounting system' costs the county plenty

April 09, 1999

An interesting vignette in Annapolis was reported in the Washington Post this week. The scene was the Senate Budget and Tax Committee and the principals were committee chairman Barbara Hoffman and Fred Puddester, the governor's budget chief.

Puddester was going down the list of items funded by Gov. Parris Glendening's $118 million supplement to the state budget and Hoffman noticed what seemed to be a corollary between financial allocations and supporters of the governor's programs.

"We could actually put names (of state legislators) next to these" projects, Hoffman said. The dry-witted Puddester, the Post reported, leaned into his microphone and said, "We have."

The lesson here is that it pays to make friends with the guy who hands out the money. Or at least, keep your mouth shut and don't annoy him.


Washington County lawmakers managed to do neither this session, and as a result, planning money for a University of Maryland branch campus in Hagerstown was hanging by a mortar-board tassel at week's end.

As this was being written, Sen. Don Munson and Del. Sue Hecht were frantically performing CPR on a measly but highly significant $150,000 line item in Gov. Parris Glendening's supplemental budget that will put the wheels of the new campus in motion.

Both these veteran lawmakers must have cringed last month when freshmen Dels. Chris Shank and Joe Bartlett decided they were going to make the new campus a test of Glendening's manhood by boldly proclaiming they wouldn't be pushed into voting for the governor's proposed cigarette tax in exchange for college funding.

These two can take comfort in the fact that their outburst has already cost Washington County several hundred thousand dollars and, in a worst case scenario could delay the project for a full year or even scuttle it entirely.

How carefully does Glendening watch votes? Look at the numbers. Washington County asked the governor for $800,000 in planning money. The governor penciled us in for $150,000.

Consider that Washington County has six delegates who collectively voted 5-1 against the cigarette tax. Divide $800,000 by six and you come bloody close to $150,000. Each vote against the tax probably cost us somewhere in the neighborhood of $135,000.

Yeah, Shank and Bartlett sure showed the governor all right. All Glendening did was shrug and start subtracting from the total. And as final irony, the cigarette tax passed the house anyway.

Although quieter about it, Dels. Louise Snodgrass, Bob McKee and John Donoghue voted against the tax. You don't expect much out of Snodgrass and who knows which particular drummer McKee is listening to at any given time - but Donoghue, a good, smart man with a rich family tradition of health care, ought to be especially ashamed of caving in to the big tobacco lobby.

What these five delegates did to the children of Washington County, and to the adults who want to better themselves through education, borders on the unconscionable. Of course in a county where voters reward political ineptness, what was to lose?

Hecht's vote for the cigarette tax probably saved the campus for this year. Her vote, along with lots of behind-the-scenes lobbying from local, influential business leaders such as Wayne Alter, persuaded the governor to at least put the project in the pipeline.

That's important, because planning money for a state project is a toe in the door. Once it's handed down, the actual construction funding is almost always forthcoming.

Once again, Hecht bailed out the delegation with no mind to the political lumps she will no doubt suffer for, heaven forbid, voting to raise the tax on a product that kills.

But now that the governor has generously placed himself above the Shank-Bartlett embarrassment and handed out a scrap of funding anyway, the ball is back in our delegation's court.

That's because General Assembly budget analysts think the funding ought to be cut. Further, the lower the cigarette tax that's coughing its way through the legislature, the lower the chances the school will get off to a timely start.

It's up to Hecht and Munson (who voted against the tax, but at least is in a position on the Senate budget committee to bend the ears of people who matter) to do the heavy lifting.

Odds are we'll get something, if only because the amount allocated is so small it's almost not worth the ink it would take for the budget conference committee to scratch it out.

But precisely how much clout do you believe the five delegates who put tobacco money and personal political gain ahead of higher education will have on the debate?

Will they have any influence whatsoever? They say they want the campus, but they voted against the funding that would have paid for it. That may be good enough to fool Washington County voters, but it doesn't wash with fellow lawmakers.

Senate President Mike Miller commented this week that cigarette tax supporters will be scrambling after the proceeds like mice scrambling after a piece of cheese. What a pity that the best our delegation mice can do is sit on the bench and watch the fun.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist

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