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Ehrlich pledges $1 million for city's education center

January 21, 2004|By LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

Gov. Robert Ehrlich said Tuesday that he has earmarked $1 million for startup costs at the University System of Maryland's Hagerstown Education Center.

Washington County lawmakers praised the grant, which will be included in the governor's proposed fiscal 2004-05 budget when it's released today.

The West Washington Street center is scheduled to open in January 2005 after contractors are finished with renovation work.

"We're basically in the final stages here and these dollars will dot the i's and cross the t's," Ehrlich said.

University System Chancellor William "Britt" Kirwan has told Hagerstown community leaders that the project would need an additional $1.8 million in startup and operating money.

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But Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, said another top university official told him that $1 million would be enough.

"I advocated $1 million. The governor's been very responsive and I have no complaints," Munson said. "It means we're going to have a university in Hagerstown pretty soon."

University System spokeswoman Anne Moultrie said Kirwan would not comment until he sees the entire budget today.

Washington County Delegation Chairman Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, said he was pleased with the amount, especially in light of the state's fiscal woes.

"Certainly it's a very bare bones budget, particularly when it comes to higher ed," Shank said.

Ehrlich said he had a difficult time balancing the budget, which he had to start by closing a hole of more than $700 million.

His proposed budget will contain no tax increases and large increases in school funding, although not as much money as originally anticipated.

Some state employees will get raises, he said.

Ehrlich said the project got into the budget because of its importance and the fact that it is so far along in development.

"Dollars are scarce, so this is a big deal," he said.

Washington County lawmakers, who are part of his political base, made it clear to him that this was their top priority this session, Ehrlich said.

Hagerstown business leaders have hired Bruce Bereano, one of the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis, to follow the money.

"My job is to watch it every day for 90 days," he said.

Bereano has a good reputation among lawmakers even though ethical questions have been raised about him in the past, Munson said. Bereano was convicted of federal mail fraud in 1994.

But it largely will be up to local lawmakers to make sure the legislature doesn't cut the money, they acknowledged.

The Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, of which Munson is a member, will first offer its cuts to the budget. Then the House Appropriations Committee will weigh in.

"I hope that we can keep it in the budget," said Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington.

Donoghue said the fact that the county's four other delegates voted against the budget last year could hurt the project's chances in the House.

Shank said many GOP lawmakers voted against the budget because it was propped up by tax increases.

Shank urged Donoghue to support Ehrlich's slot machine proposal as a way to bring in more money to the state.

"I hope we can work together to make sure the university money stays in the budget," Shank said.

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