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In 2009, Munson showed that he can play hardball

April 19, 2009

o If you like reading Tim Rowland, you'll love watching him. See what else Tim has to say

Reporters in Annapolis frequently find their minds wandering, even on that last frantic night of the legislative session, when bills are passed one after the other with cannon-like velocity.

One such night, about 15 years ago, a reporter from the Associated Press noticed that one out of every 10 bills or so were mysteriously being pulled off the House of Delegates list for final passage. Curious, or more likely bored, he looked up the bills and discovered they all had the same sponsor: A powerful Senate committee chairman who happened to be sitting on a bill that the House wanted.

The game was obvious. Unless the Senator gave the House its legislation, his own bills would die when the clock struck midnight.

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The House got its bill.

At that time the thought that our own Sen. Don Munson himself might be wrapped up one day in such hardball gamesmanship was beyond imagination. Relatively new to the Senate and the powerful Senate Budget and Tax Committee, he was the leanee, not the leaner. If some big legislative bully wanted to put the screws to a fellow member to obtain avote, Munson's door was always the first to get the knock.

I wouldn't try that today.

No local lawmaker in recent memory has grown into the job as Munson has. And while he will not be called upon - not that he would want to be - to hammer out any great state initiatives, he's become a dependable and effective representative for our home turf.

If the University System of Maryland-Hagerstown campus is thriving 20 years from now, it will be Munson and Del. John Donoghue who will deserve the accolades. All along, and even as a Southern Maryland delegate was trying to kill the campus, they had been telling local school administrators not to worry. Donoghue had the ear of the governor and Munson had the strings of the Senate purse.

Not without reason, other lawmakers had the idea that they could punch Washington County in the gut without fear of retaliation. When Del. John Bohanan cut $500,000 from the Hagerstown campus, with promises of more cuts to come, the best our Republican delegates could do was meekly offer up a "study" of the situation. Boy, that's hitting Bohanan where it hurts. The dreaded Washington County Task Force of Death.

Surprisingly, Bohanan did bow to this horrible specter.

But when the spending plan moved to the Senate, Munson was ready. His committee - and one has to be respected among his committee members to get these results - voted not only to restore the Hagerstown funding, but to cut funding of the college in Bohanan's district by a quarter of a million dollars.

Suddenly we had a good, old fashioned horse trading situation on our hands. The Senate might restore the money to Bohanan's school, and even sweeten the pot a bit, but only if Hagerstown received its full share - which, when the dust settled, it did.

This high-pressure give and take is the way things work in Annapolis, but through the years we've been heavy on the give and light on the take. Munson's new-found talent for hardball indicates that a welcome change may be at hand.

Ultimately, this is one more case of the rest of the state failing to understand Western Maryland's special needs. With Mack and Fairchild serving as employment keystones for decades, appreciation of higher education has been slow to come. A school in suburban Shady Grove can be expected to sprint out of the box. A school in an area where education has historically been a nasty word will take longer. That's the simple truth.

Funding for the Hagerstown campus is classic buy-and-hold strategy. If you check your portfolio on a daily basis, you may be underwhelmed.

Yet you wake up one day a decade or two hence to find a rewarding nest egg that will pay dividends to the state treasury. That Bohanan expects results after a couple of years shows that he doesn't understand and doesn't want to understand. Of course he is just doing his job, getting the most he can for the people who elected him. But it clearly shows why we need a Munson and Donoghue in office - to fight those who have no interest in equal educational opportunities for all Marylanders.

As for the "study" of the campus' financial viability, I suppose it can do no harm - just as a delegate-mandated study of the Funkstown Bridge was little more than one extra errand at the end of the County Commissioners' day. Of course there's already an existing study of the campus' financial viability that's ongoing, but - no, why get into any of that. I'm sure they'll both do great things.

But the more immediate concern - money - has once again been addressed, and if raiders from the other end of the state get the idea that we have someone in our corner who will hit back, their efforts to do the same next year may involve considerably less enthusiasm.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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