Is boon in school money tied to vote on taxes? Distribution of funds raises questions

April 17, 1992|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Staff Writer

Was it politics or did merit alone earn certain counties millions of additional dollars for school construction this year?

The question arose after Gov. William Donald Schaefer and the Board of Public Works distributed another $35 million in school construction money -- apparently using as a road map votes on the legislature's hard-fought battle to raise taxes.

Montgomery County, where the Schaefer administration drew considerable support for its budget and the taxes to fund it, received $14.2 million of the added $35 million.

Howard County, where tax foes are vocal and votes for the governor few, didn't do as well. Less than $1 million in additional funding was provided. And that sum was targeted to a district represented by Del. Virginia M. Thomas, a Democrat who supported the governor.

But Republican County Executive Charles I. Ecker made no complaint. "We're just glad to get another $805,000," he said, referring to the money provided for expansion of Oakland Mills High School. The additional money, added to $4.9 million already earmarked for the county, was about what he had expected.

In Baltimore County, the governor approved $2.6 million in additional spending for a new Jacksonville Elementary School and $600,000 for a new roof at Pikesville High.

And he seemed to be making a point.

When the award was made official on Wednesday, Mr. Schaefer singled out Sen. Janice Piccinini, D-Baltimore County, the only county senator who voted in favor of the tax package. Mr. Schaefer also mentioned Democratic Dels. Leslie Hutchinson, Leon Albin and Michael H. Weir -- who also supported him.

Was this retribution for Republicans?

One Democratic delegate, referring to frequent GOP attacks on the Democratic governor, said yesterday, "They throw the hand grenades. You have to throw it back to them."

But the governor insisted it was not true that his allocation formula was drawn from the list of tax supporters. He was amazed, though, to see people who voted against the state budget show up for their share of what the budget provides.

"Some play political football," he said during his weekly radio call-in show on WBAL. They say no to taxes -- and then they "want to be counted in on the school construction money. . . ."

Yale Stenzler, executive director of the state's Interagency Committee on School Construction, said the money was allocated as always in accordance with a process in which applications are carefully reviewed by him and by his committee before recommendations are sent to the governor.

In the first round of awards made in January this year, he said, about $42 million in new spending was approved. Another $35 million was added by the legislature during the session by transferring all legislative public works money into school construction.

The Assembly congratulated itself for paring what is generally called "pork" -- or goodies for the home folks. In effect, though, the school construction program is regarded as pork as well, and it was even tastier this year with the added millions.

A list of Mr. Schaefer's choices for allocation of this additional money was made available to legislative leaders in the House and Senate as they worked to line up votes for the tax measure. The governor's decisions in this area are carefully examined every year.

But this year, if a legislator's vote was uncertain or uncommitted, the knowledge that a substantial school construction project hung in the balance was useful leverage -- and all the players were taking advantage of it. "There was a lot of interest in where the governor was going to put this money," said Paul E. Schurick, an aide to the governor.

Elsewhere in the region, Baltimore got $4.8 million, Anne Arundel County $6.3 million, Carroll County $2.2 million, Harford County, $3.5 million and Prince George's County, $7.5 million.

Baltimore County Del. Ellen R. Sauerbrey, the House Republican leader, said she had little doubt that some counties were rewarded and some punished for their willingness to support new taxes -- not just in school construction but throughout the operating budget. She said she understood the need to put more money in poor jurisdictions. "But when the rest of the state is asked to pay for a significant tax package that also aids Prince George's and Montgomery counties, this is a recipe for some real problems in the future. The votes of the three subdivisions allowed the administration to put together almost anything they want, ram it through and have the rest of the state pay for it," she said.

Asked if he thought politics were involved in the allocation of construction money, Del. James C. Rosapepe, D-Prince George's, said with a smile in his voice, "I don't apologize for fighting for my constituents."

Echoing the governor, he said, "I think there is a lot of hypocrisy in those who champion spending cuts and then complain when spending is cut for their constituents."

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