Delegates disagree on effects of budget cuts

October 30, 2003|by LAURA ERNDE

Washington County lawmakers disagreed Wednesday on whether the University System of Maryland can handle future budget cuts without hurting the planned Hagerstown Education Center.

Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, said he's concerned about rising tuition rates, which would hurt students from middle-class families. A Board of Regents member appointed by Gov. Robert Ehrlich has proposed doubling tuition, he said.

"I disagree with that, especially at a time when the university's coming to Hagerstown. The timing couldn't be worse," Donoghue told more than 100 people at the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce's annual legislative forum at the Plaza Hotel in Halfway.


But county Republicans defended Ehrlich's cuts to higher education.

Del. Robert A. McKee, R-Washington, said when the Hagerstown campus opens in January 2005 it will make higher education more affordable for local families because they won't have the added cost of room and board.

In addition, McKee said he plans to introduce legislation to lock in a student's tuition for four years so families are better able to budget for the expense.

Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, said Ehrlich is asking the University System to tighten its belt as every other state agency has done in the face of a nearly $1 billion budget deficit.

Del. Richard Weldon, R-Frederick/Washington, questioned why the university system sought to be exempt from review by a task force he's serving on to identify efficiencies in state procurement law.

The chamber is worried that when the renovation of the Baldwin House complex downtown is completed, there won't be enough money in the budget for the Hagerstown Education Center's operation.

"We are very concerned about the operation funding. We're looking for anything to make sure that happens," said Pam Christoffel, chair of the chamber's legislative affairs committee.

The chamber has urged community members to write to Ehrlich urging him to support operating money for the Hagerstown Education Center.

On Oct. 1, the delegation wrote a letter of support.

At Wednesday's meeting, Christoffel outlined the chamber's other legislative priorities for the 90-day session that begins in January.

They are:

  • Resolve the state's budget problems by increasing government efficiency and reducing the regulatory burden on businesses.

  • Preserve the so-called Thornton Commission funding, a $1.3 billion boost to education over six years.

  • Provide money for local transportation projects, including the widening of Interstate 81 from four to six lanes and the extension of the Hagerstown Regional Airport runway.

  • Make employer-provided health insurance more affordable and accessible.

  • Support improvements in rural areas, especially improved broadband/wireless access and use of the fiber optic cable along Interstate 70.

Also at the meeting, Donoghue criticized the other seven members of the Washington County Delegation for voting against the budget.

When lawmakers don't vote for the budget, he said it makes it difficult for him to ask House of Delegates fiscal leaders to support money for local projects, he said.

"It's very frustrating," he said.

Weldon responded by saying he would have been willing to stay in Annapolis for as long as it took to fix Ehrlich's budget after it was changed by the General Assembly.

Delegates were not given the opportunity to vote for slot machines, which Ehrlich had proposed to fill the budget gap.

After the meeting, the delegation met briefly to elect Shank as chairman for the coming year.

Shank takes over for McKee, who has served as chairman for the last five sessions.

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