Millions slipped in for Md. projects

Funds are earmarked for drought relief, golf course, Glen Echo

November 19, 1999|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- In the witching hours on Capitol Hill this week, as grand compromises were being reached on major bills, lawmakers -- including Marylanders -- eagerly slipped in big-dollar provisions, ranging from millions of dollars for farmers with parched land to $100,000 for a handicapped-accessible golf course in Prince George's County.

The compromise legislation setting spending for much of the government required a section several inches thick just to list the earmarked projects. There were so many projects that many lawmakers did not have a chance to read the full legislation they were voting on.

"As far as money for a golf course, that sounds very suspicious," said Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Baltimore County Republican who has often criticized the practice of earmarking funds for projects. "I don't know anything about it."

Lawmakers and congressional aides said the major spending compromise, which compresses five separate spending bills into a single piece of legislation, includes:

$1.8 million to repair a ballroom, bumper car pavilion, tower and carousel at Glen Echo, a historic amusement park in Montgomery County, a proposal long pushed by Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat.

$2.5 million to purchase privately held land for the Antietam and Monocacy national battlefield sites.

About $500 million nationwide in additional drought relief for farmers, a provision sought by senators from Northeastern states parched for much of the summer. That is considered likely to add tens of millions of dollars in aid for Maryland farmers.

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Southern Maryland Democrat, secured the $100,000 for a not-for-profit company to establish an 18-hole golf course accessible to people with physical and developmental disabilities. Hoyer's spokeswoman said it would serve as a model for similar facilities around the world.

Critics say earmarked projects, many of which have not been debated or subject to scrutiny in congressional hearings, represent a process gone badly awry.

"There will be more pork-barrel spending items this year than ever before," said Thomas Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, a conservative watchdog group. "Pork has always been bipartisan. It's never known party boundaries."

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, defended the process last night, noting that she sought funds for many uncontroversial projects that have been subsidized in previous years.

As for adding more money toward the end of the budget process, "it's like standing sentry and being ready to move," she said. "When you see an opportunity, you take advantage of it right away."

The House passed the spending measure last night, and the Senate is expected to follow suit late today or tomorrow.

The state's lawmakers were also able to help shape proposals revising current rules governing Medicare, the health insurance program for senior citizens. Those changes, which were wrapped into a vote on the final budget accord, would have a major impact on Maryland programs.

Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore-area Democrat, was able to extend by two years a Medicare pilot program in East Baltimore. The program, the largest of four in the country, provides 12,000 lower-income senior citizens with prescription drugs and eyeglasses, which are not generally covered by Medicare.

If the legislation is signed into law, Cardin's move will preserve $25 million in funds for each of the next two years for the program.

Ehrlich and other lawmakers successfully lobbied House Speaker Dennis Hastert and California Rep. Bill Thomas, the chairman of a key health panel, to ease the cuts in compensation for smaller teaching hospitals.

Ehrlich said that Franklin Square Hospital in Baltimore County would save nearly $23 million that would have been cut over the next six years and Greater Baltimore Medical Center would save about $5 million. But other congressional sources said they were less certain of that measure's impact.

Also, Cardin and Mikulski pushed for incentives to insurers to offer HMO-style plans to seniors. Under a 1997 law, companies that stop offering the policies this year are barred from entering the business again for five years.

Many states -- particularly Maryland -- found insurers fled rural counties because reimbursements were low. CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield has announced that it will leave 17 rural Maryland counties in January, a decision that would affect 14,000 policyholders in the Medicare+Choice program.

Many of the other spending items were included at the behest of Hoyer and Mikulski, who sit on powerful committees that allocate spending for government programs. For instance, a not-for-profit initiative based in Bowie, part of Hoyer's district, would receive $100,000 toward training youths to succeed in the business world.

Several other projects specifically target programs at Maryland campuses:

The Johns Hopkins University would receive $1 million for a center that studies bioterrorism, contained in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's budget.

The Hopkins-affiliated Kennedy Krieger Institute would receive $800,000 to establish communications links with high schools.

The University of Maryland, College Park would receive $300,000 for construction costs for the James MacGregor Burns Leadership Academy. Democratic presidential candidate Bill Bradley taught at the academy after he left the Senate in 1996.

In addition, the spending package would provide:

$100,000 for the Interior Department to measure water quality in the St. Mary's River.

$586,000 to renovate the Gambrill House, a historic preservation training center in Frederick.

$500,000 to acquire land to add to the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.

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