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Budget shifts road funding to education

January 20, 2003|by LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich is proposing to raid Washington County's highway department budget as part of an effort to balance his 2004 state budget.

But that and other cuts to local aid would be offset by a $6.7 million increase to public school education under the $22.9 billion budget proposal Ehrlich unveiled Friday.

Washington County would get $91.1 million from the state next year, which is an overall increase of 2.8 percent, according to the state Department of Budget and Management.

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Washington County Administrator Rodney Shoop said he was glad Ehrlich fulfilled his promise to increase aid to public education following the Thornton Commission recommendations. But he is worried about the impact of a $3.2 million cut in highway user fee money from the state, which Shoop said represents 46 percent of the county's highway department budget.

"We cannot operate our highway department on that," he said. "We're having a difficult year as far as snow removal so that ends up being a double whammy."

Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, pointed out that Ehrlich had just 10 weeks after he was elected to make up a $544 million deficit in the current budget and a $1.3 billion shortfall next year.

Shank said Ehrlich balanced the budget without raising taxes or laying off state employees.

Ehrlich's budget also maintains the state's $505 million Rainy Day fund.

"We're just going to have to tighten our belts and spend within our means," Shank said.

Ehrlich plans to balance the budget by legalizing slot machines, making modest budget cuts and borrowing $402 million from the state transportation fund.

Sen. Donald F. Munson said the state has taken from the transportation fund to fill past budget gaps.

"It looks like a pretty fair budget to me. It was clear that a lot of work went into this budget," said Munson, R-Washington.

As a member of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, Munson will work more closely on the budget than any other member of the Washington County Delegation to the Maryland General Assembly.

Chip DiPaula, the new budget secretary, said the state will still be able to complete all the transportation projects it has promised through 2005.

DiPaula said the budget plan should not hurt Washington County's efforts to get a state commitment for $8 million to extend the Hagerstown Regional Airport runway.

"They have to work to get in there just like any other project," he said.

Borrowing from the transportation fund will make it more difficult to clear the backlog of highway, airport and mass transit projects the transportation fund was designed to pay for.

Even a 5-cent increase in the gasoline tax would raise only $125 million, which would not be enough to address the state's long-term budget problem, Ehrlich said.

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