So many worthy projects, so few dollars Petitioners line halls of Senate to give pitch

March 17, 1998|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

Elderly nuns made the pilgrimage. So did teen-age figure skaters. Music fans who are passionate about Mozart showed up. So did animal lovers who worry about hurt raccoons.

All day Saturday and for six hours yesterday, hundreds of people from all walks of life lined up inside the Maryland Senate building the way petitioners might once have gathered outside a medieval castle.

In the gloomy corridor, they waited patiently for a six-minute chance to appeal to a Senate panel for the same blessing: Money for their causes.

"I'm a little apprehensive," acknowledged Sylvia Smith, a Cambridge schoolteacher who wants $299,000 for an African-American museum and educational center.

"But I figure if I can stand up in front of children, I can do this," she added, while practicing her speech outside the committee room. "I'm going to see how the process works, and then I'm going to go back and tell the children that I was part of it."

The competition for a share of state bond money reserved for community groups, museums, hospitals and historical societies is a spring rite in Annapolis. Perhaps the most basic drama of the 90-day General Assembly session, it is the moment when ordinary people advocate for concrete projects that will make a difference to their communities.

Every year, the governor puts aside a portion of the state borrowing for capital projects for so-called "legislative initiatives," better known in State House parlance as "pork." Gov. Parris N. Glendening has reserved $12.5 million this year but, as in past years, the legislature expects to persuade him to shift funds to double that amount.

Still, the legislature has to choose from among as many as 128 projects, many pushed with equal vigor by senators and delegates. If all were approved, they would cost more than $113 million, nearly five times the hoped-for sum.

The requests differ widely -- from enclosing a Prince George's County ice rink to building a Baltimore police memorial, from expanding an Anne Arundel wildlife treatment facility to renovating a Charles County camp for the deaf and blind.

"It's hard," conceded Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, which finished its review yesterday. "There are so many valid, competing interests."

The winners typically prevail because they have raised matching funds from other sources and enjoy broad community support, Hoffman said. But other local bond bills clearly survive because of the sponsor's influence.

While Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat, downplays the phenomenon, legislators sometimes use their votes on other issues as a negotiable commodity to gain support for their favorite projects.

The long parade of the civic-minded will continue all week as a House committee conducts hearings on the bond bills. Of all the days, however, Saturday will have been by far the busiest and most colorful, as schoolchildren, church groups, artists and suburban volunteers turned out in a way that's not possible on weekdays.

Even veterans acknowledge they're astonished by the spectacle that Sen. Robert R. Neall jokingly calls "The Gong Show" and several legislative staffers dub "the cattle call."

Some community activists seeking money arrived in stylish suits and carrying glossy pamphlets. Others wore jeans and brought handmade posters. Baltimore Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier was there, waiting to give his pitch for a recreation center. So were two bus loads of elderly men and women from West Baltimore, who hurriedly signed a petition supporting a senior center when a guard forbade all from going in to testify.

All supplicants had to talk equally fast. The committee allows six minutes of testimony for each project.

"I hope our brevity won't be overlooked," quipped John A. Luetkemeyer Jr., owner of Reisterstown Road Plaza, after he and Frazier finished in just five minutes their presentation seeking $900,000. Luetkemeyer is donating space for Frazier's recreation program.

Douglas Edwards, who runs a program for the homeless in Capitol Heights, hoped he would fare better than last year, when the legislature denied his request. Edwards started collecting mattresses and other supplies for the homeless after retiring from the federal government in 1990. He wants $150,000 to develop a warehouse.

"I just gave it my best shot," he said. "I did not want this mission to grow, but it did anyway. I have a 30-foot camper and it would be easy for me to go to Florida for the next six months, but in a country like the one we live in, there is just no need for people living on the streets. I will come back here every year as long as there is money."

Louis F. Linden, executive director of the foundation that is restoring the 1854 warship Constellation, surprised the senators showing a rotted ship plank.

"This is the most innovative historical preservation project in the maritime world right now," he said, after showing the panel the old board and a new plank.

After only the first hour Saturday, Neall, an Anne Arundel County Republican, calculated that the requests had reached $12.8 million.

Museum directors, business leaders and well-versed community advocates were not the only ones to pull off polished presentations. Nine-year-old Lauren Hite won a rare round of applause from the committee by promoting a $500,000 bond for NTC the community center that Payne Memorial AME Church in Baltimore wants to create from an empty building.

"With your vote," she told the legislators in a clear, firm voice, "these programs will be continued for young people like me for years to come."

Pub Date: 3/17/98

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