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Local lawmakers are fumbling the USM-H football

July 18, 2009

Whatever happened to the kid who pointed out that the emperor had no clothes? A couple of months after the fact, was he revered for telling the truth or despised for spoiling a good party?

If we had that insight, we might be in a better position to know what to make of Del. John P. Donoghue's recent pronouncement that a task force formed to study the University System of Maryland's Hagerstown campus is "a waste of time."

This meltdown builds on the ever-so-warm relationship between Donoghue, D-Washington, and Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, who favored, but did not author, the task force amendment. Earlier this year, Donoghue blamed university budget cuts on Shank, saying leadership was punishing the Republican's partisan rhetoric. Shank countered by calling Donoghue paranoid.

Donoghue and Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, successfully restored the budget cuts to the school, but the task force still is hanging around, and it obviously sticks in Donoghue's craw.

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In a sense, the task force is not a waste of time -- it's worse. The fact that our own delegation forced this task force into being was tantamount to an admission we are doing something wrong -- that the school is inefficient, or needs to pay more of its own freight, or was a bad idea in the first place.

The task force implies something needs to be fixed. And this is our own team saying this, not some outside critic of the campus who wants the funding for his own pet projects. With friends like that ...

The truth of the matter is the campus is fine. It will need more financial help in its infancy, as all startups do. It will feel its way at first and there are bound to be missteps, as is the case with any new institution. There is nothing systemically wrong that the school can't sort out on its own. All it needs is time. And, of course, adequate funding.

It has become a winter sport for one state lawmaker to try to gut the campus of the money it needs and channel it instead to a school in his own district. This lawmaker has become an intellectual irrelevancy because facts and logic (facts and logic that the task force are designed to champion) have no place in his mind. He just wants the cash.

He is unlikely to be swayed by task forces or by Shank's idea, which was to model our school after the competing college in Southern Maryland -- where the student demographics are entirely different.

Unfortunately, we play into the hands of the school's enemies when our own delegation can't put up a unified front. Donoghue and Munson wanted the money back, unconditionally. Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr., R-Washington/Allegany, wanted a task force. Shank wanted a new business model.

If you're a Republican, you see the positions of Myers and Shank as a potentially creative solution. If you're a Democrat, you see their positions as a lame attempt to make it look to the people back home as if they are playing a role in managing the crisis. Take your pick.

It is, however, telling that Munson, himself a Republican, said the task force would only "muddy the waters" and the university frowned on both the task force and remodeling ideas.

Of course, both were red capes to the Donoghue, who, as we witnessed, flew off the handle at a time when, even if he's right, he should have bitten his tongue. It seems clear that this winter, Shank was not as disruptively partisan as in past years, so if Shank makes the effort to tone it down, Donoghue should, too.

Every so often, you just need to sigh, roll your eyes and go with the flow, no matter how pointlessly circular its course, or whether or not it was supported by your political nemeses.

As it is, however, USM-H has become a political football, not in Annapolis, but here in our hometown. That's a disgrace. Were our minority delegates statesmen, they would have refrained from changing the conversation when Donoghue and Munson were intent on funding restoration. Were Donoghue a statesman, he would have tried to use the task force, now that it is in place, for good, rather than torpedoing it before it gets off the ground. But neither has the ability to put personalities aside long enough to keep us from looking like a bunch of infighting fools.

This behavior is fine on the campaign trail, but not when an institution that's crucial to the future of the people of our county is hanging in the balance. There is a season to take potshots and a season to lead. It's about time our local lawmakers learned the difference.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2324 or via e-mail at timr@herald-mail.com. Tune in to the Rowland Rant video under opinion@herald-mail.com, on antpod.com or on Antietam Cable's WCL-TV Channel 30 evenings at 6:30. New episodes are released every Wednesday.

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