Chamber chief pleased with Annapolis lobbying coalition

April 02, 2011|By ANDREW SCHOTZ |

ANNAPOLIS — With Maryland’s legislative session nearly over, the results of a local lobbying coalition’s 2011 wish list are becoming clearer.

Brien J. Poffenberger, president of the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce, said Friday that the coalition knew this was the wrong year to ask for anything that required much money.

Instead, the coalition focused on protecting Washington County’s progress, he said.

This year’s coalition agenda included road projects and economic development initiatives, as well as a “watch list” for previously approved library and higher-education funding.

With about a week to go in the session — the last day is scheduled to be April 11 — the coalition knows how most of its requests are shaping up.

One item still up in the air is the University System of Maryland at Hagerstown, which could be hurt, indirectly, by a push to cut money from the university system’s central office.

The House’s version of the fiscal year 2012 state budget calls for the USM central office to lose $8.1 million of its $19.3 million budget. The Senate’s version of the budget reduces the cut to $2.1 million.

The issue could be significant for Washington County if USM tries to make up for the cut by taking money away from its two higher-education centers, including USMH.

On Thursday, delegates and senators met to work out differences between their chambers’ budget plans. They made some progress, but the USM central office cut wasn’t resolved.

Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, D-Baltimore/Howard, chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, said the Senate offered, as a compromise, to make the central office cut about $4 million. The House declined.

The conference committee was scheduled to have met again Friday and possibly Saturday, but those possible meetings were postponed, according to The Associated Press.

The lobbying coalition includes Washington County government, the city of Hagerstown, the Washington County Board of Education, Washington County Free Library, the Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Hagerstown Committee, the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Hagerstown Washington County Industrial Foundation, known as CHIEF.

Each year, the coalition makes a list of legislative priorities and hires an Annapolis lobbying firm as an advocate.

Because USMH’s funding was directly targeted for cuts the previous three years, the campus made the coalition list again this year.

Although the campus could be hurt indirectly by a USM central office budget cut, USMH’s budget is relatively safe compared to past years.

Poffenberger called that a victory. The coalition was ready to mobilize its lobbying forces if another direct cut were proposed, but that wasn’t necessary, he said.

Two road projects were on this year’s coalition list.

One is $300,000 toward improvements at Eastern Boulevard and Md. 64. Poffenberger said the coalition hasn’t heard anything from the state Department of Transportation on that request.

The coalition made a broad request for planning money and state leadership for an improvement project at U.S. 340, Keep Tryst Road and Valley Road in southern Washington County, close to West Virginia and Virginia.

Poffenberger said Maryland has given a verbal committment to help with that project, but Virginia hasn’t.

“That Virginia isn’t rolling up its sleeves (to help) makes it very difficult,” he said.

The coalition put “forestall shifting state costs to local government” on its “watch list.” Poffenberger said the reference was to the possibility of making counties pay a significant share of teachers’ pensions, an idea that was floated leading up to this year’s legislative session but didn’t happen.

“The counties feel it every bit as much, if not more,” he said.

The coalition also is seeking $100,000 for an economic development infrastructure master plan, showing what would make development sites ready for “high-impact” projects, and $50,000 for a concept plan and marketing study for a biotechnology or high-technology business park at Mount Aetna Farm, near Hagerstown Community College.

Poffenberger said there’s no promise that Washington County will get money for either project, but the state Department of Business and Economic Development has statewide money available for those types of ideas, and Washington County is considered “very competitive.”

The coalition also is trying to have the state, through existing resources, “create a database of foreclosed commercial properties to help attract investors to Maryland,” according to the coalition’s agenda.

Finally, the coalition set out to protect money for a library-expansion project in Hagerstown and protect the county’s tip-jar gaming system.

The House and Senate versions of the fiscal year 2012 capital budget each include $2.5 million, as expected, for a state regional library that’s part of the downtown Hagerstown library project. A final capital budget hasn’t been approved.

There were no attempts in Annapolis this year to interfere with Washington County’s tip-jar system.

Poffenberger called it a successful year for the coalition, whose goal was “making sure that we don’t lose ground in the gains that we made.”

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