ANNAPOLIS — One constant for the University System of Maryland at Hagerstown in recent years has been its budgetary uncertainty.
Supporters were caught off guard in 2008 when a state delegate on the House Appropriations Committee tried to slash USM-H's budget by two-thirds and redirect money to higher education centers outside the university system.
The USM-H money ultimately was restored, but there also have been comparable tussles the last two legislative sessions.
Two years ago, the state Department of Legislative Services recommended cutting about 90 percent of USM-H budgets.
Last year, it suggested a 14.3 percent decrease for the Hagerstown and Shady Grove USM centers, as well as centers outside the university system.
USM-H survived each year with most or all of its funding intact.
As state lawmakers dig into the proposed fiscal 2012 budget, it's too early to tell if there will be Round 4 in the budget battle.
House and Senate budget subcommittees had preliminary talks with Chancellor William E. "Brit" Kirwan last week about the University System of Maryland's funding for the coming year.
The only mention of USM-H was in connection with funding for the university system's central office.
Legislative services has recommended cutting the central office's $19.3 million budget by $8.1 million. Individual institutions within the system would make up the $8.1 million, since the central office "operates on behalf of and for the benefit of all the institutions," the agency report said.
Kirwan told the subcommittees he strongly objects to the proposed cut because the central office is the guiding force for the system, not a "service" to be charged to member institutions.
The recommendation didn't mention USM-H, but its $1.9 million budget is part of the central office budget, to which the $8.1 million cut was proposed.
The Hagerstown center's state appropriation was $1,891,592 for fiscal 2011, according to Erin Harman, the center's director of advancement and outreach.
"We are flat funded, so the request for 2012 is the same amount," she wrote in an e-mail.
USM-H has grown since it opened in downtown Hagerstown in 2005. Five schools within the university system now offer undergraduate and graduate degrees there.
Del. John L. Bohanan Jr., D-St. Mary's, who chairs a House subcommittee on education, has said he objects to the current funding model, in which centers within the university system get much more money per student than centers outside the system.
Supporters of the Hagerstown center have argued that USM and non-USM centers are different for various reasons, and their funding levels shouldn't be compared.
Although Bohanan gave up his fight to redirect USM-H funding to other centers as part of a 2008 budget compromise, he said last week he remains concerned about what he sees as unequal funding that puts non-USM centers, including one in his district, at a disadvantage.
"It has not been addressed in the governor's budget," he said in an interview. "It's still a huge gap and disparity that bothers and concerns me greatly."
"We've had this issue for the last several years," Kirwan said during a separate interview. "It's been, for the most part, resolved satisfactorily, from my point of view. I just don't know how many times this issue can be brought up and dealt with.
"The General Assembly has spoken and basically wants funding in these centers. We are very pleased by that because we think the centers are truly important for the future of the regions they serve and the state overall."
Bohanan suggested during his subcommittee's meeting that the USM-H and Shady Grove Center budgets be separated from the central office budget.
"What that would do is allow us to look at Hagerstown and Shady Grove, like we do all the rest of the institutions, and look at their budgets," he said during an interview. "Right now, they're just tucked into the system."
"If they would prefer that approach, that would be fine with us," Kirwan said during an interview. "What we would be very concerned about would be any attempt to reduce the funding for the centers because we see them as really critical for our expansion of educational opportunities. We see them both as real areas of growth."
C. David Warner III, USM-H's executive director, who watched last week's Senate and House budget discussions, said there were no clear indications of what might happen to his center's budget this year.
"It's early in the process," he said.
The Senate subcommittee is scheduled to review the USM central office budget, including USM-H, more closely at the end of this month.
The House subcommittee is expected to do the same in early March.