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USM center price tag goes up along with heat on delegation

November 05, 2003|by BOB MAGINNIS

Memo to the Washington County delegation to the Maryland General Assembly:

Remember that $1 million in operating funds that everyone was hoping you could secure for the University System of Maryland's Hagerstown Education Center? Sorry to break this to you, but now it's $1.8 million. And if you were hoping that someone here would tell Del. John Donoghue off for his tough talk of last Wednesday, forget it. His speech was just the message local lawmakers - and voters - need to hear.

The bad news on the amount of cash needed to fund USM's downtown campus was delivered last Wednesday by Chancellor William Kirwan, who spoke to a meeting of the local steering committee.

Kirwan told the group that the university system was operating under a mandate from the state not to ask for any new money in the state's general fund budget. But Kirwan said there is a mechanism called the "separate list" in which institutions ask for funds for items they consider essential.

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Kirwan said the governor must be persuaded to move those items from the separate list to the budget proposal, adding that the USM is "doing all we can" to accomplish that, including talking to Gov. Robert Ehrlich and his budget people directly.

Running the building will require $770,000 a year, Kirwan said, while "programmatic activities" will cost another $1.1 million.

Asked how the steering committee members could help get that job done, Kirwan was diplomatic, saying only that "we all have to work together."

In truth, very few of the steering committee members will have much to say about this decision. It will be the members of the local delegation, which brings us back to Donoghue's scolding of his fellow members.

Donoghue said he was the only local delegate to vote for Ehrlich's budget last year.

"If you're asking us to make sure things are in the budget, make sure your delegation votes for the budget," Donoghue said.

Del. Richard Weldon, R-Washington, Frederick, followed Donoghue on the program and defended his own decision not to vote for last year's budget. He would have been willing, he said, to stay in Annapolis for another month, if necessary, to get it right.

Weldon is a smart guy and probably one of the delegation's future stars. But as a member of the minority party with little seniority, the legislature wasn't going to bend to his will. Maybe in the future, but not now.

This matter will be a small skirmish in the major battle developing between the governor and House Speaker Michael Busch, who wants Ehrlich to agree to a tax increase as the price of getting a slot-machine bill passed.

Instead of splitting the difference, the two are holding firm to their respective positions - Ehrlich to the idea that cutting waste and legalizing slots will be enough and Busch that the state's present and future needs require new tax revenue.

Both men are likely to use the center funding to try to force local lawmakers to back their position. Ehrlich will demand certain things to put the money into his budget and Busch will ask for others to keep it there. It's up to the delegation to keep both sides happy, as they keep their eyes on the prize.

And make no mistake, this is a prize. It's a major educational institution in downtown Hagerstown that will allow more young people to get the college degrees and advanced training that lead to better jobs. It could be the anchor for a downtown revitalization and a lure for businesses that want convenient, university-level training for their employees.

To get this valuable commodity, delegation members may just have to hold their noses and go along, just as state Sen. Don Munson went along with a cigarette tax he didn't agree with to get construction funding for the university center.

The voters knew what was up with that - that a small rural delegation without anyone in the leadership ranks has to go along with some things it doesn't want to get some stuff that its people need. Munson took a political risk, and it paid off. Unless someone asks them to commit a crime, the delegation has to go along, and bring home this very necessary facility for our community.

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