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Campus approval expected

April 08, 2002|BY LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

Washington County's dominant issue of the 2002 Maryland General Assembly will be resolved on the last day of the session Monday, when the legislature is expected to finally approve Hagerstown's university project.

Both the House and Senate have earmarked $12.4 million of the state's $720 million capital budget to renovate the Baldwin House complex in downtown Hagerstown for the University System of Maryland Hagerstown Education Center.

The two chambers have to resolve differences in other pieces of the budget and take one last vote.

The vote will end three months of suspense about the project's funding.

At times, people watching the project's progress through the legislative process felt like they were riding a rollercoaster.

Del. Sue Hecht, D-Frederick/Washington, set the tone early in the session when she told business and local government leaders that nothing would be sacred as the House Appropriations Committee combed through the budget looking for cuts.

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Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, a member of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, insisted the project was safe from the budget knife in the Senate.

Then Gov. Parris Glendening's office issued a dire warning. In meetings with legislators, he learned that Hagerstown's university project was on the table for a possible cut.

Glendening and local lawmakers vowed to fight for its survival.

The tide shifted in favor of the project in late March, when it passed the Senate. A short time later, it safely cleared the House.

Then a powerful committee chairwoman intervened.

Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, D-Baltimore, was on a mission last week to pass her proposal for a 34-cent-per-pack cigarette tax increase to boost public school funding.

But she needed votes.

She cornered Munson and threatened to cut the university unless he agreed to vote for the tax increase.

Although some people questioned whether Hoffman's threat was real, Munson said he couldn't risk calling her bluff. He agreed to trade his vote.

Final approval will allow the university to begin the bulk of the construction work this summer. If all goes according to schedule, the first classes will be held in January 2004.

As the legislative session draws to a close, one other major issue affecting Washington County remains unresolved - $750,000 worth of grants to four local nonprofit organizations.

The House set aside $15 million in the capital budget for groups such as Girls Inc. and the American Red Cross. But the Senate has been adamant that a lean budget year is not the time to be doling out what some consider to be pork.

It's a test of wills whose outcome is expected to be known by Monday.

All of the legislation introduced by the Washington County Delegation this session has won final approval going into the last day.

The delegation had a relatively light legislative package this year, the most significant piece of which was a 50 percent pay raise for the Washington County Commissioners.

The five commissioners elected in November will get $30,000 instead of the current $20,000. An additional $3,000 will go to the commissioners president.

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