Schaefer, Assembly lock horns School's money on hold despite legal opinion.

August 12, 1991|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Evening Sun Staff William Thompson contributed to this story.

In a rural corner of the Eastern Shore, a school for 200 retarded youngsters anxiously awaits a check from Annapolis to help pay for the cost of extensive renovations.

The Benedictine School, run by Roman Catholic nuns near Ridgely in Caroline County, embarked on a $1.5 million improvement program after the state promised to pay half the cost.

Benedictine cares for 200 retarded children and teen-agers, about 35 percent of whom have been placed there by government social service officials, a school official said. Most of these students are from Baltimore.

The school needed to replace contaminated water wells, improve its fire protection system, replace a roof and install a new wastewater treatment system.

But several months ago, the school came up empty-handed when it asked the state to pay its share. It was the victim of a political slugfest between Gov. William Donald Schaefer and the Maryland General Assembly.

The school renovation is one of many projects around the state that Schaefer has held up in a test of wills with lawmakers.

Tired of taking the heat for spending taxpayers' money, Schaefer decided last spring to require lawmakers to send him letters approving state-funded building projects and grants in their home districts.

Without the letters, Schaefer is refusing to put the items on the Board of Public Works' agenda. So a variety of projects, such as the Benedictine School improvements, are in limbo.

The board is required to approve all state expenditures of more than $5,000. Besides the governor, the board consists of State Treasurer Lucille Maurer and Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein.

Some angry legislators have refused to send the letters, arguing they already voiced their support when the General Assembly voted for the projects.

The Benedictine School wound up in the middle.

"We're caught between a rock and a hard place," said Barry Smale, executive director of the Benedictine School Foundation, the school's fund-raising arm.

The school raised $750,000 for the project and spent an additional $400,000 while it awaited the state grant. But the school does not have enough money to finish the project. Meanwhile, the children will be returning soon.

Without the promised grant, school officials have had to remove $200,000 from a fund for scholarships and other projects. It also took out a $200,000 loan from the Jessie Ball DuPont Fund in order to pay bills, Smale said.

Legislative leaders, meanwhile, asked state Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. whether Schaefer and his agencies had the power to require such letters before approving grants and loans.

On Friday, Curran released a carefully worded opinion that caused both sides to claim victory.

The governor can ask lawmakers if they support projects in their home districts but he cannot require such expressions of support, the opinion stated. The same rule generally holds true for agencies, Curran said.

The opinion said the governor could not prevent the board from approving a project if the two other members support it.

Schaefer views Curran's opinion as a vindication, said Daryl C. Plevy, the governor's director of legal issues.

"He is going to continue to ask for letters or expressions of support from local legislators, and he's going to continue to use that in his decision" as to whether a project is "ready" to be placed on the board agenda, Plevy said.

Plevy's interpretation did little to ease legislators' heartburn.

"If the governor continues to disobey the law," vowed Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's, "the governor will wind up in court with the General Assembly."

Lawmakers have another option: the two other members, Maurer and Goldstein, could vote to bring stalled projects before the board despite Schaefer's objections. Maurer was elected by the legislature and Goldstein by voters statewide.

House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr. said lawmakers plan to talk with Maurer and Goldstein about that option today.

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