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tim rowland 1/28/01

January 26, 2001

Maryland's awash in cash, but county comes up dry



At least the suspense is over with early. Just three weeks into the General Assembly's 2001 session and three of Washington County's biggest project proposals are toast.

When Gov. Parris Glendening handed down the state's operating and capital budgets there was nothing for runway extension at the Hagerstown airport, nothing for the proposed Civil War museum and nothing for the downtown parking/open space project that would complement the planned university campus.

(Meanwhile Baltimore got initial funding for a $45 million "digital harbor." And Aberdeen got funding for a minor league baseball stadium - so all the folks who so loudly and successfully opposed a minor league stadium in Hagerstown will have to pay for a stadium anyway - on the other side of the state. My nasty side sees a little bit of poetic justice in that.)

There was money for the campus itself - and to be fair, this is the one project that mattered most - but local lawmakers are acting as if it will take the statesmanship of Churchill to keep that money in the budget - even though it's one of the governor's pet Smart Growth projects.

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Please. The delegation has been desperately trying to ratchet down expectations over their chances of success since December, even though the state has a $375 million surplus, coming on the heels of a $1 billion surplus.

Like an investor who sat out the stock market windfalls of the '90s, the local lawmakers' transgressions of the past may have cost Washington County millions of dollars as we essentially have been sitting out some of the biggest surpluses in state history.

Now, the gravy train may be at its end. State budget forecasters warned this week that serious shortfalls may crop up within a year. Our opportunities may be fading.

You can't help but wonder. If these were the days of former Washington County delegation members Cas Taylor, Doc McClellan and Bruce Poole - members who had the ear of the executive and worked with him instead of offending him - perhaps all three of the above projects would be in tow.

Definitely the downtown university enhancements. Probably the runway extension and maybe the Civil War museum.

The university and the museum are the epitome of education and Smart Growth, Glendening's two favorite issues. The runway extension is an expensive gamble, but it has the firm commitment of the locals and seems to be viewed favorably by the feds. It's the type of project for which the skids are usually greased.

The governor still may include the university enhancement money in his supplemental budget - he's no doubt waiting to see how well our lawmakers behave this session. They ultimately will have to vote for something Glendening wants to get what they want. Business and downtown leaders will have to hold their collective breath and hope our delegation is smarter now than it was a year ago.

After the university parking/open space blow, the county was shut out in the state's six-year transportation master plan. No runway, and obviously not even a peep about the highway project to alleviate traffic in Funkstown.

The very next day came the news about the museum. The governor said the project wasn't firm enough for a commitment of state money. Maybe it isn't. But don't governors routinely take the lead to push such projects over the top - especially projects on which local people and agencies have worked so hard?

A state that routinely builds projects like equestrian centers and curling rings for its metropolitan-area counties could certainly be expected to take the lead in a project of the Civil War museum's import - if the governor, or a powerful, driven delegation were of the mind to do so.

What's obviously happening is that last year's legislative disaster - when our delegation insulted and disrespected Glendening at every turn, then cried with indignation when he didn't fund their projects - is spilling over into this year.

Elephants and, apparently, governors, never forget.

This year our resident lawmakers have started out much better. They praised the parts of the governor's state address they agreed with and were courteously restrained in their criticism of the parts they didn't.

At some point this session they will probably - if they wish to get back into the loop of legislative relevance - have to swallow hard and vote for one or more of the governor's initiatives they find disagreeable. The $4.4 million in supplemental university money will probably hang in the balance.

Of course the governor should not be let off the hook in any dissection of project paucity. He does, afterall, have the ability to rise above politics and fund projects on their merits and on the benefits they provide for the people of all counties, not just the ones which voted for him. But I digress into a land of magic pixie dust and lollipops.

In reality, local lawmakers may have to ask themselves whether posturing against the governor's gay-rights bill is more important to them than developing the best possible university campus in downtown Hagerstown. If they've learned anything, their answer will be no.

If they haven't, it will be a cue for people who know how to get things done to start thinking about filing for office.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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