Groups race the clock to make funding requests

State surplus draws big bond-bill crowd

March 12, 2000|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

Antoine Lewis came to Annapolis yesterday with one purpose in mind: Getting $2.5 million in state money for a museum in his East Baltimore neighborhood.

"The museum means a lot," he said, standing in the crowded lobby of the James Senate Office Building.

Lewis, 16, has been with the Great Blacks in Wax Museum for years. He started as a 9-year-old looking for a job. The founders told him to come back in two weeks, figuring he would not return. He did. Now he speaks for them.

"I'm going to try to help the museum just like they helped me," said Lewis, a student at City College. "We're going to put it through strong so we can get this bill."

It's bond-bill season in Annapolis, when just about everyone with a nonprofit organization and a sympathetic legislator asks the General Assembly for money. They are community activists and guardians of culture, children speaking on behalf of nature centers, a minister making his first sales pitch for a drug treatment center.

This year, 161 requests have been made for a total of more than $127 million. The money for these and other capital projects comes from the state selling its bonds to private investors.

The bulk of this year's requests comes from 141 small, local nonprofit organizations seeking $104 million for capital improvements. These bond bills are not for operational expenses such as salaries and supplies. They are for construction, renovation and acquisition. The numbers surpass recent years by a third.

"This year is just an incredible year as far as bond bills," said Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, who heads the subcommittee that will make the initial decisions.

The bills are heard in each chamber. The hearings began in earnest Friday with the House Appropriations Committee. Yesterday, the process reached a critical mass in the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee. Hearings started at 9 a.m. and were scheduled well into the evening.

To accommodate the added requests, legislators shaved the time for individual testimony from six minutes to five minutes. The Senate committee added an extra half-day for its hearings, which continue tomorrow. The House committee will hear bills for nearly two weeks.

Middleton said the state's surplus is the main reason for the rise in requests.

"There's so much money out there, and that's what people have been hearing for six to nine months," said Middleton, a Charles County Democrat.

People talk about state government's $1 billion surplus, but it has nothing to do with these local bills.

The surplus isn't for the little capital projects. The governor relegates that money to entities such as the Woodrow Wilson Bridge or the University of Maryland. There's only $12.5 million set aside for local bond bills, the same as in recent years.

"They don't understand that," Middleton said. "They see this billion dollars and they say, `Now's the time to get something from the state.' "

Each group tried to squeeze its history, contributions and needs into a five-minute spiel. Yesterday, Sen. Patrick J. Hogan sat barely an arm's length from the testimony table, keeping time.

He flipped a sheet of paper near him to show the speakers when they hit the three-minute mark, the four-minute mark and when their time was up.

There was no time for rambling. The Rev. Milton E. Williams, a rookie at this process, ate up most of his time reading testimony. He wanted $600,000 for a drug treatment center.

"You're not always certain of what the committee is looking for," he said after his five minutes. "You try to get your message across in as little time as possible."

Williams listened as Lewis and his friends gave their presentation on behalf of the Baltimore wax museum. Ten children gathered before the committee. Some sat, others stood. Elmer and Joanne Martin, the museum's founders, remained in the audience, looking on like proud parents. The children were in charge.

Each said a sentence or two. Lewis told the committee he hopes to run the museum one day, perhaps to take over as executive director or president of the board. They finished in a little more than four minutes.

"It's a shame we don't have a video to show people how to do a presentation," said Middleton, praising their precision.

His smile and nod might mean nothing, in the end. The first day was not even half over. More than 100 bills remained.

Later, senators will start cutting and compromising, balancing geographical interests, finding out what is really important, what can wait till next year -- and what might have to wait forever.

Elmer Martin knows not to give too much weight to the presentation.

"They generally know who they're going to give their money to and who they're not," he said.

This is his group's 10th request. "We've mellowed as we've learned the process," said Martin. "If it doesn't happen this year, you'll see us back next year."

What each group is asking is that the state go in debt for it. The groups have two years to match what they get from the state, and many fail.

"One of the problems we've been having is to approve these bond bills under the belief that the program can raise the money, and they're coming back two years later without the money," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings, chairman of the Appropriations Committee.

Lou Sullivan Carter, speaking for the Anne Arundel County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, doesn't have that problem. Her group is always raising money. This year, the group decided to ask for $500,000 to expand their building.

"It's because they have a surplus, and everybody has their hand out," she said. "We all hope we get a little bite out of the apple."

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