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Hecht says campus may be delayed

February 21, 2002

Hecht says campus may be delayed



Annapolis

By LAURA ERNDE
laurae@herald-mail.com


Hagerstown's University System of Maryland education center project is vulnerable to being cut from the state budget this year, a local lawmaker told Washington County business leaders Wednesday.

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"We're in a budget crisis. Everything is on the table as far as looking at ways to balance the budget," said Del. Sue Hecht, D-Frederick/Washington.

But Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, told the group he remains optimistic the project will stay on track.

"I see nothing in the Senate that says we're going to lose this project," Munson said.

Hecht and Munson serve on the General Assembly's money committees, which are charged with cutting Gov. Parris Glendening's proposed 2003 budget.

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Their job will be especially difficult this year because state revenues are down and Glendening has added few new programs.

Lawmakers have committed to cutting $175 million to pay for a promised 2 percent income tax cut that Glendening wants to delay.

The legislature may be forced to find another $50 million in cuts to avoid raiding the Maryland Automobile Insurance Fund, Hecht said.

Hecht said the state isn't allowed to touch that money because it belongs to insurance payers.

Glendening's budget earmarks $12.4 million to renovate the Baldwin House complex downtown into the University System of Maryland's Hagerstown Education Center.

It's among $70 million worth of projects that were delayed last year when the economy began to slow down.

When Glendening realized the state couldn't afford to pay for the projects with existing state revenues, he proposed that the state borrow extra money.

But borrowing more money only adds to the state's structural deficit, Hecht said.

"Unfortunately, good projects like the (campus project) might be delayed," she said.

Hecht said she made her remarks because she doesn't want people to think that just because the money is in the budget it's a done deal.

She said she's confident that, even if it gets cut from the budget this year, Hagerstown will get the education center.

Since Glendening is leaving office, the decision will rest largely with the next governor.

Phil Kelly of Citicorp asked why the legislature can't cut the $19 million that's been set aside for lawmakers' pet projects statewide to keep the education center alive.

"There is nothing more important to Washington County than the University (System) of Maryland campus," Kelly said.

Both Hecht and Munson said they have suggested that and been shot down by their committee members.

"I think they all threw things at me," Hecht said.

Through the bond bill program, the state borrows money on behalf of nonprofits that would otherwise have no access to state money, she said.

Five Washington County nonprofits are seeking $1.2 million through the program.

"In an election year, we all like to say we brought a few dollars back to the local community," said Del. Robert A. McKee, R-Washington.

Some business and local government leaders who attended the breakfast meeting were surprised to hear that the situation might be tenuous.

"I was a little taken off guard by Sue Hecht's comments. I do hope people recognize the value of the University System and how important it is to our community," said Tom Newcomer, second vice chairman of the Greater Hagerstown Committee.

But Hagerstown Mayor William Breichner said he has always been guarded.

"I'll be concerned about that until the day they break ground," he said.

Washington County Commissioner Paul Swartz said the education center is the top priority.

"We've been preparing for the worst and hoping for the best," Swartz said.

Peter Perini, a Hagerstown nursing home administrator who has been spending time in Annapolis this session on Medicaid budget issues, said the legislature is facing a tough job.

"The project is beyond just a nice thing to do. It truly is really a critical point as a necessary project for Hagerstown and Washington County," said Perini, a candidate for state delegate.

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