Md. construction budget reaches $350 million

April 12, 1992|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Annapolis Bureau

ANNAPOLIS -- The General Assembly is praising the $350 million public construction budget as one of the leanest in years, but fat is still a relative term in the State House.

The legislature did lop off many of the "pork barrel" projects that traditionally crowd the construction budget before it took a final vote late Friday.

"I think it's the most pristine budget I've seen in a long while," said House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., a Kent County Democrat.

But two proposed projects -- an intensive care unit for newborn babies in Baltimore and a minor-league baseball stadium in Bowie -- illustrate the trouble lawmakers had trimming the "fat" and deciding which projects were truly worthy.

Del. Charles J. Ryan, the Appropriations Committee chairman who represents the Bowie area, pushed hard for the stadium, saying it would bring Double A baseball to Prince George's County and boost the local economy.

He and some Appropriations comrades lobbied for the stadium until late last week, despite complaints that the project "stuck out like a sore thumb" in the otherwise pared-down borrowing plan.

Last Monday, the day the legislature was supposed to finish its work, they finally agreed to trim the baseball funds from the original $4.25 million to $2 million.

But in the process, House and Senate budget negotiators axed $1 million for the construction of a neonatal intensive care unit at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.

Baltimore Democrat Howard P. Rawlings, second in command at the Appropriations Committee, was fighting hard for the neonatal unit. The unit would help save babies born to crack cocaine addicts, he said.

But Senate negotiators resisted, pointing to other important hospital projects that had been cut.

"Not needed," Sen. Charles H. Smelser, a Democrat from Carroll County, pronounced last Sunday.

"How can you say a neonatal unit for crack babies, run by the Sisters of Mercy, is pork?" countered Del. Timothy F. Maloney, a Prince George's County Democrat.

Still, his House colleagues agreed to cut the neonatal unit and save the stadium.

But by Friday night, the tables turned: The stadium was out and the neonatal unit was back in.

Why?

"We felt in light of the current fiscal climate, [the stadium] was not the highest priority for the general obligation bond program," Mr. Maloney said. "We've voluntarily withdrawn it from the capital program in an effort to make the process work more smoothly."

The stadium may be out of the budget, but it's not out of sight. "The governor agreed to work with fiscal leadership to come up with an alter native, public-private partnership to make this work," Mr. Maloney said.

The construction budget also includes:

* $69 million for public school construction statewide;

* $25 million to buy land for at least 16 park and open space projects around the state;

* $43 million for a health sciences building at the University of Maryland at Baltimore;

* $10 million to build and equip the Christopher Columbus Center for Marine Research and Exploration in Baltimore, and

* $2.1 million to repair the Lake Roland Dam in Baltimore County.

Democrats and Republicans alike said they feared the public would confuse the construction budget, which is paid for by borrowing, with the operating budget, which is financed with taxes. Mr. Maloney said that borrowing for building projects is a good idea now because interest rates are low and contractors have lowered their charges.

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