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Money grab - are we asking for enough

January 22, 2000|By LAURA ERNDE

ANNAPOLIS - In light of the state's projected $1 billion surplus, Marylanders are flocking to the State House to ask for money.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who introduced his 2001 spending plan last week and will present his construction budget to the Maryland General Assembly this week, said he's already turned down legitimate requests for a piece of the large pie.

Will Washington County get its fair share?

The Republicans who make up the majority of the local delegation but are a minority in the General Assembly say at least some of the money should be returned to taxpayers in tax cuts.

At a recent Chamber of Commerce luncheon, at least one business leader wondered aloud if that fiscal conservatism won't mean less money coming back to the county.

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"There are times when the delegation almost makes it a point of pride of not asking for state participation," said Suzanne Hayes, Chamber president-elect.

But local lawmakers said they'll work hard to bring back money for worthy local projects.

"I'm going to work to do what I can to get everything I can. Our taxpayers pay that money. They deserve to have some of it back to better the community," said Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington.

Because of the political structure, there's not a lot the delegation can do to increase the county's share of the pie, said Delegation Chairman Del. Robert A. McKee, R-Washington.

Foremost, the budget belongs to the governor.

"If this governor makes the decision to spend, rather than reduce debt, I'm hopeful it will be spent on one-time capital projects. Hopefully, some of that is on projects in our county," McKee said.

The governor has already committed to building the University System of Maryland Hagerstown Education Center downtown. Planning money is expected to be in this week's construction budget.

Planning money for the widening of Interstate 81 in Washington County was recently added to the state's six-year transportation plan.

For school construction, Washington County could get more money from the state's $250 million-a-year fund if there was a bigger local match.

This year, the Washington County Board of Education got all $4 million it requested, but could have probably gotten $6.2 million based on its population, said Dennis McGee, facilities manager at the Washington County Board of Education. "We're not requesting enough," said McGee.

The delegation would like to see the governor add $500,000 to create the first state battlefield park at South Mountain, which straddles Washington and Frederick counties. The secretary of the Department of Natural Resources is handling the request.

The governor's office said no other Washington County groups have asked for money, although they still have an opportunity because Glendening will offer several additions to his budget throughout the 90-day session.

Del. Louise V. Snodgrass offered one explanation for the shortage of requests: People in Western Maryland have always found a way to manage through hard times by pulling together within their families and their communities.

"We're just such a thrifty group in Western Maryland. Sometimes we haven't asked. We have to get out there and fight for money coming back," said Snodgrass, R-Frederick/Washington.

Backers of the Hagerstown Roundhouse and Sports Complex may yet approach the governor with a request for planning money, although they are still working through the stadium's financing details.

When it comes to approaching the governor, some legislators have more clout than others.

Last year, Del. Sue Hecht, D-Frederick/Washington, was able to bend Glendening's ear about university funding. Hecht is often the only member of the local delegation who votes in favor of Glendening's initiatives.

"He remembers that and he's willing to work with me," she said.

The legislature can cut Glendening's budget, but not add to it.

This year they're expected to cut $67 million from Glendening's proposed $19 billion operating budget. The proposed budget is 7.5 percent higher than last year's, so it falls within growth guidelines set by the legislature.

The two local lawmakers who sit on money committees, Munson and Hecht, have the most influence in that process.

But even they don't have as much power as Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. or the committee chairs, all of whom are Democrats.

There are about 10 legislators who make the decisions and "the rest of the 178 of us sign off on it," McKee said.

One way the delegation takes an active role in bringing back money is through the state's bond bill program, where the state borrows money and grants it to nonprofits statewide. Every county submits the requests, which are then pared down by both Hecht's committee and Munson's committee.

This year, Washington County has received an unprecedented $4.7 million in requests from eight local organizations. The delegates have not yet decided which requests to pursue, or even prioritized the requests.

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