C&O funding request highlights delegation divide

March 03, 2012|By ANDREW SCHOTZ |

The National Park Service is taking a slightly different tack this year to get state money for C&O Canal National Historical Park improvements in Williamsport.

Last year, the Park Service asked the Washington County delegation to request up to $215,000 to work on Lock 44 and the Western Maryland Railroad lift bridge.

Republicans in the delegation balked, saying the state’s financial problems were too severe to ask for the money.

This year, the Park Service found a local Republican willing to help — state Sen. George C. Edwards.

Last week, Edwards submitted a bond-bill request for up to $320,000 for improvements at Lock 44 and the lift bridge, as well as Lockhouse 44.

C&O Canal National Historical Park Superintendent Kevin Brandt couldn’t be reached for comment on Friday, but said last year that the lock and lift-bridge improvements are part of a plan that includes new retro-style passenger boats in the canal.

Edwards said the Park Service has promised the money required to match whatever bond-bill funding is approved.

A Park Service list of Williamsport-area C&O Canal projects estimates the lift-bridge project at $2.2 million, Lock 44 at $350,000 and Lockhouse 44 at $223,000.

The state bond money and match would only cover part of the total cost of the projects. Other funding sources would be needed to reach the total.

The return of a similar but pricier bond-bill request after another one was thwarted illustrates a philosophical gap within the delegation, even among Republicans.

Some Republicans in the delegation strongly oppose bond-bill requests.

Del. Neil C. Parrott, R-Washington, has filed a bill to change the state constitution so that all bond bills are banned. Two delegation Republicans — Dels. Michael J. Hough and Andrew A. Serafini — are co-sponsors.

On the other side are legislators who take part in the bond-bill process, with or without reservations.

Each year, Maryland’s capital budget includes $15 million for bond bills, the state’s version of earmarks — individual legislators’ funding requests for projects in their districts.

The state sells bonds to fund capital projects.

Edwards said his position on bond bills is: “If we’re going to do this, then we should try to get our constituents some of their money back. I don’t have a problem with not doing any, but that means everybody, but they’re not to that point.”

It’s unusual for legislators to request money for projects not in their district. Edwards represents a small part of western Washington County, but not Williamsport.

Actually, Williamsport will be in his district starting in 2014. That change became certain on Feb. 24, when a legislative redistricting plan took effect. Edwards’ bond bill was introduced six days later. He said the timing was coincidental.

State Sen. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, whose district now includes Williamsport, said he supported bond bills in the past and might in the future, but won’t “while we’re experiencing a financial crisis.”

Serafini, Williamsport’s delegate, expressed a similar view.

He said he can’t back the C&O Canal request this year because he’s worried about the state’s debt and might vote against the capital budget, where bond bills are funded. Instead, he directed the Park Service to Edwards.

The request’s chances this year are uncertain, partly because of guidelines governing bond bills, which are supposed to be sponsored in both the House and the Senate. Edwards’ bill has no House sponsor.

Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, initially pledged to cross-file the bill in the House. However, he said Friday that House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, told him that if a legislator objects to a bond-bill request for his or her district, it probably won’t be funded. So, an objection by Serafini could torpedo the bond bill in the House.

Donoghue already has a bond-bill request for up to $40,000 for a new Korean War veterans monument in Hagerstown.

Department of Legislative Services guidelines for bond bills say they “must be introduced in both the House and the Senate, known as cross-files, so organizations must arrange for a sponsor in each house.”

Yet, a list of bond bills approved last year shows that the legislature doesn’t strictly obey that guideline.

Seventeen of the 118 bond-bill projects sponsored by legislators or delegations in 2011 were filed in only the Senate or the House. Of those 17, nine were fully or partly funded.

One of the eight single-chamber bond bills not funded was filed by Donoghue, who tried unsuccessfully to get $200,000 for a new station for Antietam Fire Company.

Last year, Serafini and Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr., R-Washington/Allegany, wrote a letter urging a House budget subcommittee to reject Donoghue’s request.

The letter said Antietam Fire Company should try for Maryland State Firemen’s Association funding instead. Ultimately, the subcommittee turned down all bond-bill requests involving fire companies.

Myers said last year that he wrote the letter on behalf of the delegation when the subcommittee chairwoman asked if the delegation supported Donoghue’s bill.

Another bond-bill guideline is that the legislature “will consider the priority a county delegation places upon a project.”

There’s no indication, however, that the rest of the Washington County delegation will take the same step to fight Edwards’ bond bill, particularly since Serafini, the delegation chairman, steered the Park Service to Edwards.

Shank said, as a senator, he stayed out of the House dispute over the Antietam funding request last year and won’t actively oppose Edwards’ bill this year.

Donoghue said bonds fund worthwhile capital projects; it’s up to investors buying the bonds to back the projects and get a good return.

“There seems to be a spin by the Republicans that this is a waste of money,” he said.

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