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State funding could be scarce

NEWS PLUS:

January 08, 2001

NEWS PLUS: State funding could be scarce



By LAURA ERNDE / Staff Writer


Money for local projects will once again be a top priority in the upcoming session of the Maryland General Assembly.

But Washington County lawmakers say bringing home the bacon could be tough now that the free-wheeling days of abundant state budget surpluses appear to be coming to an end.

The 90-day session begins Wednesday.

Later this month, Gov. Parris Glendening will release a proposed budget that could make or break projects such as a Civil War Museum in downtown Hagerstown.

Any money in the budget must then survive cuts by the legislature.

"We're facing the prospect of a substantially slowing economy and a much-reduced surplus," said Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, who sits on the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.

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Munson and other local lawmakers were cautiously optimistic about funding for the University System of Maryland Hagerstown Education Center.

Gov. Parris Glendening has committed to renovating the Baldwin House complex in downtown Hagerstown for the university. Latest estimates are it will cost about $15.3 million.

The governor is expected to put the bulk of the construction money in his proposed budget this session. Then it will have to survive the legislature's budget ax.

Local community leaders are also pushing the state to spend an extra $4.4 million on open space around the university.

Lawmakers say the project is a perfect fit for the governor's latest Smart Growth initiative for urban parks. The idea also has the support of House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., D-Allegany.

"Now we have to work with the administration to make sure that money is in there," said Del. Sue Hecht, D-Frederick/Washington, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee. "Given our financial challenges, we have to fight to keep it in there."

'Wish list'


The Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce has set lofty goals, laying out a "wish list" for $55 million over the next five years.

The list includes the widening of Interstate 81, the extension of the Hagerstown Regional Airport runway and an arts and entertainment center in downtown Hagerstown.

A new minor league baseball stadium also made the list, although many view that project as on hold for now. The Hagerstown Suns, which would play in the new stadium, plan to make an announcement about their future on Monday.

The wish list is ambitious, especially in light of the criticism business leaders leveled at the delegation last session for not bringing back enough money.

But lawmakers said they don't feel under added pressure.

"We go down and try extremely hard to bring things back for the community," said Washington County Delegation Chairman Del. Robert A. McKee. "Things turn out the way they're supposed to."

Lawmakers said Glendening is responsible for most of the funding decisions.

"He has every penny in his pocket and decides who gets the pennies," said McKee, R-Washington.

Competition


Washington County must compete with much larger jurisdictions for money, they said.

"There's so much competition for every cent of money in that budget that you just do your best," Munson said.

But Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, said that shouldn't discourage county leaders from asking for money.

"I'm of the opinion we ask for it and we fight for it and if it comes up short, it comes up short," he said.

Washington County will also be looking to Glendening's budget for several other programs that aren't on the Chamber's wish list.

Taylor will be pushing for $2 million to renew subsidized air service between Baltimore-Washington International and airports in Hagerstown and Cumberland, Md. This year's budget had $1 million for the program, which could spur flights as soon as March.

South Mountain


Local lawmakers are hoping to see money in the budget to develop South Mountain Battlefield into a tourism destination, although that might not happen this session.

"We're very patient. This is not something we can expect to happen overnight," said Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington.

Officials are less hopeful that the budget will include money for a nursing home for veterans in Washington County.

The Department of Veterans Affairs did not request money this year, which means the governor would have to add it to his budget later this session, Hecht said.

A $70,000 study of the idea did not make it into last year's budget. A year earlier, it was cut from the budget on a technicality.

"We've had two years of frustration," she said.

Hecht has had trouble convincing state authorities of the need for a veterans home because a similar home in Charlotte Hall, Md., has empty beds.

"It's an uphill battle. It's a steeper battle than we had before," she said.

Transfer tax


Also this session, the delegation will be asked to address the money woes of the Washington County Commissioners.

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