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Lawmakers: Managing stimulus funds crucial

May 13, 2009|By ERIN CUNNINGHAM

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- Maryland's current economic trouble will pale in comparison to the pain felt if state officials do not properly manage an influx of federal stimulus money, Washington County lawmakers said Wednesday.

Members of the county's delegation to Annapolis predicted even deeper cuts next year by the General Assembly if the economy does not rebound significantly.

"I would describe the budget that we passed this year as lean, but not mean," said Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington. "But if things don't pick up next year, it's going to be lean and mean."

Six lawmakers representing Washington County attended a post-legislative forum Wednesday hosted by the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce. Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, and Sen. Alex X. Mooney, R-Frederick/Washington, did not attend.

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Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, said spending statewide is up, and he called on lawmakers to change the way they prioritize funding.

"In the worst economic time that we have seen in my lifetime ... if you look at this budget, we still spent $1.1 billion more this year than we did in the previous year," Shank said.

Del. Andrew A. Serafini, R-Washington, said he recently attended an economic conference where he learned not to expect a swift or vibrant economic recovery. He also warned against the danger of inflation.

"You cannot borrow this much money without significant inflation," Serafini said in reference to the federal economic stimulus package.

He said the stimulus spending originally was intended for infrastructure projects that were "shovel ready," but over time developed into a spending package that targets programs.

"The way the stimulus funds were applied is really setting us up for a massive tax increase," Shank said.

Sen. George C. Edwards, R-Garrett/Allegany/Washington, said Maryland has a very serious financial problem.

"We had to make some tough decisions," he said. "We're not out of the woods yet. If you rely on stimulus money, just watch how you spend it because the state won't be able to pick up that hole in two years."

Del. Richard B. Weldon Jr., who is unaffiliated and represents parts of Frederick and Washington counties, said the state's financial crisis was the reason he opposed bond bills for Washington County. Bond bills are state money for capital projects.

Weldon said he opposed bond bills before it was apparent Maryland would receive stimulus money, and state workers were facing furloughs and potential layoffs.

"It seemed irresponsible to me when we were talking about laying off state workers, and cutting education and public health, to be talking about local bond projects," Weldon said.

Lawmakers also discussed Wednesday the repeated threats to state funding for the University System of Maryland at Hagerstown. The downtown campus has been the target of cuts the past two years. However, the bulk of the center's budget was restored, and USM-H operates on about $2 million in state funding.

Munson said the best way the business community can ensure that USM-H stays open in Hagerstown is to encourage family members to enroll and to have patience while the center grows.

"We're past the point now where we're a manufacturing community and a farming community, and we are becoming a brain power community," he said.

Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr., R-Washington/Allegany, led an effort to establish a task force to study USM-H's viability that ultimately was part of the agreement to restore the center's funding this year.

"There's nobody (on the delegation) who's not in favor of the (USM-H campus)," Myers said. "We wanted to think of an alternative way of doing business in Washington County."

Myers said the delegation spends a lot of money each year defending USM-H.

"Let's get with the business community and try to come up with another way, if it's possible, and show Annapolis that we are responsible," he said. "We want to help avoid this every year, so we move on to other things."

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