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Session results were mixed

April 10, 2000|By LAURA ERNDE

ANNAPOLIS - The 2000 session of the Maryland General Assembly produced relief for Washington County's water and sewer debt as well as annual tourism grants - both paid for largely through a hotel tax hike.

It also left some lawmakers disappointed at the lack of funding for local projects such as a national Civil War museum and Clear Spring library.

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The gavel came down at midnight Monday, marking the end of this year's legislative session.

Washington County lawmakers said their biggest accomplishment was a package of bills aimed at reducing the county's $52 million water and sewer debt. The county government has been asking for the state's help with the debt since taking over the troubled utility in 1995.

The county legislative delegation came up with a way to provide $500,000 a year toward paying down the debt.

With the extra help, the Washington County Commissioners expect the debt to be pared down to $19 million in 10 years. As an unanticipated side effect of the legislation, water and sewer rates will won't increase this year, saving the average customer $8 a year.

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Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, called the plan "the crowning effort of the delegation so far in our four-year term."

Under the lawmakers' plan, the debt reduction will be funded through the hotel tax hike and changes to the tip jar gambling law.

About $250,000 a year in tip jar profits will be diverted from charities to the Washington County Fire and Rescue Association, allowing the County Commissioners to reduce their contributions to fire companies by an equal amount.

Doubling the hotel tax to 6 percent will raise another $250,000.

The tax hike will also provide $300,000 a year that the county can spend on economic development and tourism projects.

Although the County Commissioners requested the tax hike in order to pay for a new minor league baseball stadium, no final decisions on a stadium have been made.

Lawmakers spent the first half of the three-month session wrangling over the stadium funding request.

In the end, they did not take a formal position on the stadium, leaving the decision up to local elected officials while allowing the project planning to move forward.

Because of the lack of political support, stadium supporters never formally asked Gov. Parris Glendening for help in building the stadium.

Instead, local lawmakers set their sights on other local projects totaling $2 million.

Glendening chose not to fund any of the requests - South Mountain Battlefield, a national Civil War museum, a nursing home for veterans and a library in Clear Spring.

Local lawmakers clashed over who was to blame.

The governor's spokesman, Michael Morrill, said Glendening had different priorities for Washington County than local lawmakers. Several prison projects had to come first.

The other projects were turned down for a variety of reasons, including the fact that lawmakers did not support Glendening's initiatives.

"The legislators who oppose at every step what the governor is trying to do should not be surprised when he is not cooperative with their particular projects," Morrill said.

Shank said he was disappointed that the political process put them in such a difficult situation.

"We made promises to the people of Washington County that we were not going to support things like gun control and septic regulations. We're not going to sacrifice the interests of our constituents to deliver the pork back home," he said.

Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, said the promise of a nearly $1 billion state surplus created huge expectations.

"I believe that this session was oversold before it began. The fact that there was a huge surplus created an opportunity for a lot of people to want to get a piece of that surplus," Munson said.

In the final analysis, it was a rather ordinary year for state funding for Washington County projects.

The YMCA and four other local nonprofits got state grants totaling $525,000 through the state's bond bill program. That is a typical amount for the county.

The legislature turned down one organization, the Washington County Humane Society, because animal shelters are not traditionally funded through that program.

"I'm really sorry about the Humane Society," said Del. Sue Hecht, D-Frederick/Washington.

She urged the community to set priorities for next year.

"Sometimes coming out of conflict, out of chaos, comes a resolution to move ahead," she said.

Although South Mountain didn't get state funding this year, lawmakers were able to get a bill passed to designate the area along the Frederick and Washington county borders the first state battlefield.

The bill's success was touch-and-go for awhile, after local lawmakers displeased a Baltimore County senator by not voting for his local condemnation bill.

"It was a very illuminating experience for me," said Shank, a freshman lawmaker.

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