State funds for projects could be cut

Police-fire facility, court renovations may be affected

$2.4 million in bond money

Some lawmakers criticize practice as pork-barreling

March 19, 2002|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

If recession-driven budget cuts eliminate state bond money normally distributed among Maryland's counties, Howard won't get $1.4 million it wants for three high-priority projects - a new police-fire training facility, Circuit Court renovations and restoration of the mansion house at Blandair, the county's new 300-acre park in Columbia.

In addition, Howard County Executive James N. Robey asked for $1 million in bond funding to help a Columbia-based acupuncture school move to a larger campus.

A decision on the $15 million in proposed state aid to counties is expected soon. State Senate budget writers voted not to distribute it, while House leaders disagree, so a conference committee might be needed before the 90-day General Assembly session ends in three weeks.

While waiting for the verdict, Howard's legislators are mulling the issue over, and there is a wide divergence of opinions.

Some disdain the traditional funding as political pork while others view it as appropriate help for worthy local projects.

Del. Robert L. Flanagan and Sen. Robert H. Kittleman, both Republicans, and Democratic Del. Elizabeth Bobo believe the practice ought to be permanently stopped, because it amounts to nothing more than political crowd control - a device used to win votes in exchange for state money for a local legislator's pet project.

"I would love us to resist that. They're [local bond bills] used to extort votes from people," said Bobo.

Kittleman said, "I've been against this for 20 years. They're the pork."

But this year's situation is unusual, and some legislators tie decisions about the last installment of a multi- year income tax cut to a decision on the bond money.

"When the leadership starts acting responsibly and agrees to delay the final installment of the income tax cut, then come back and ask me if I would be willing to delay," Bobo said.

Democratic Del. Frank S. Turner, House delegation chairman, said Howard's requests aren't pork. "A lot of our projects are needed and worthy projects. They're not frivolous."

But he, like Bobo, thought the $15 million was a small amount compared with the $177 million at stake from the income tax reduction. "Protecting people and programs is a more important priority than protecting projects," Turner said, noting that this year, he, too, would delay the bond money.

The bond money is certainly pork, said Republican Del. Donald E. Murphy. "Don't tell me we can have money for these pork projects when we haven't kept our commitment on the [income] tax cut."

Del. John A. Giannetti Jr., a Laurel Democrat, cheerfully agrees the bond bills are pork, but he argues that's OK.

"It's not bad to have pork going to each of the counties," he said. Maryland has a strong governor system that is working fine, he said, but in a tough budget year, tough decisions must be made.

But Senate Budget and Tax committee member Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, a Democrat, said that trying to link the income tax cut, which involves taxes collected from residents, with the bond funding, which is borrowed money, is wrong.

Giving out local bond money this year makes no sense for a simple reason, he said.

"We don't have the money. We have $1 billion worth of projects to fit into $720 million. It's just not a practical thing to do," he said.

Republican Sen. Sandra B. Schrader agreed. "We've had to slash and destroy other budgets," she said.

Robey's top priority is the $500,000 requested to help build a new police/fire training facility in Marriottsville. Next is $400,000 for Circuit Court renovations, followed by $500,000 toward renovating the old Blandair mansion in Columbia, and fourth is the acupuncture school, a 25-year fixture in Columbia that attracts students from across the nation.

Republican Del. Gail H. Bates has a dual perspective because she was working the other side of the street a decade ago, when she was a top legislative aide to then-County Executive Charles I. Ecker during the last recession.

"Coming out of local government, I certainly understand the needs," she said, agreeing, however, that a "one-year hiatus" on local bond money is "a good idea."

Democratic Del. Shane Pendergrass also believes a delay this year is right, if applied evenly, though she defended Howard's requests.

Nothing is more important to Democratic Del. James E. Malone Jr., a fire lieutenant for Baltimore County, than Robey's fire/police training academy project.

But, even after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Malone said the state contribution might have to wait.

"You can always go for it next year," he said.

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