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Senate panel backs USM-H funding increase

March 27, 2009|By ERIN CUNNINGHAM

ANNAPOLIS -- The University System of Maryland at Hagerstown would get a 1 percent increase in funding under a recommendation adopted Friday by a Senate committee.

The Senate committee also decided to strike down a budget amendment approved by the House that would create a task force to study USM-H's viability.

Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr., R-Washington/Allegany, who offered the amendment, said even if the task force is not approved by the General Assembly, he still plans to pursue a study of how the center could be improved.

In particular, the task force would study whether non-USM programs should be offered at USM-H.

"I'm very pleased with the action that was taken today," said C. David Warner III, executive director of USM-H.

Warner thanked senators for helping to "ensure the future of higher education in Washington County."

The budget being considered by the House includes decreasing USM-H's $2 million budget by $500,000 and reducing funding over the next four years to $172,000 -- the amount the center would receive if it was a non-USM center.

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Officials have said cutting the budget that much would force the closure of the campus, which offers 21 programs from six universities and enrolled 455 full- and part-time students as of the fall of 2008.

The Senate has rejected proposals for cuts and prefers a 1 percent funding increase. Since the House and the Senate versions are different, the two sides likely will reach a compromise in conference.

A similar situation occurred last year when the center was targeted for cuts.

Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, said this week he would like USM-H to be modeled after the Southern Maryland Higher Education Center (SMHEC), which offers more programs, operates on less state money and spends less per student than USM-H.

SMHEC's budget was preliminarily cut Friday by $250,000 by the Senate committee that also decided to restore USM-H's budget. Sen. Donald F. Munson who sits on that committee, called the cuts to SMHEC a "bargaining chip," saying it gives lawmakers a way to "wheel and deal" in conference.

The goal is to convince House lawmakers to accept a compromise on USM-H funding by giving money back to SMHEC in return, said Munson, R-Washington.

"I believe the future of higher education (in Washington County) was at stake in regard to this budget," he said. "I believe higher education now has the potential to move ahead in Washington County."

Mel Powell, executive director of SMHEC, attended Friday's committee hearing, but said he did not want to discuss the cuts to his center.

Of Shank's comments, Powell said his center's model does have some benefits, but SMHEC and USM-H are different types of facilities.

Powell said Shank and Myers were planning to tour the Southern Maryland center after the legislative session ends.

"I'm sure the members of the Washington County delegation have the best interests of USM-H at heart," Warner said.

However, Warner said he was glad the Senate committee stuck down the amendment Friday.

He said the amendment likely was a way to avoid making the center a target of budget cuts each year.

Myers' amendment, though, would turn USM-H into a non-USM center, Warner said, risking the center's $2 million in state funding and its future.

Munson said he also was pleased the amendment had been removed from the budget being considered by the Senate. He said Myers' amendment would have resulted in "less higher education as a higher cost in Washington County."

Myers said there will be a study of USM-H.

"We have to quit spending our political capital on the same issue every year," he said. "We need to once and for all get a plan in place to keep the University of Maryland System in downtown Hagerstown and ... keep it profitable."

Myers said the study and the planned visit to SMHEC are intended to find creative ways to improve USM-H.

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