Townsend criticizes Ehrlich over issue of higher education

Republican dismisses charge of planned cuts for schools as rhetoric

October 08, 2002|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - Drawing Maryland's colleges and universities into the gubernatorial debate, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend criticized her opponent, Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., yesterday for proposing a budget that she says "would seriously harm higher education in Maryland."

Democrat Townsend told more than 100 students, faculty and staff at the University of Maryland, College Park - tightening its fiscal belt with other state agencies because of the budget shortfall - that Republican Ehrlich had proposed cuts that would mean higher education would have to bear the brunt of tens of millions of dollars he intends to save.

"I am increasing money for education," said Townsend, proposing to add $26 million to the University System of Maryland's budget. "My opponent is cutting."

Ehrlich dismissed her criticism as baseless political rhetoric. "She just kind of makes stuff up as she goes along," he said.

The Ehrlich campaign said higher education has not been targeted in his budget proposals, rather that all state agencies would be looked at for possible cuts to help resolve the $1.7 billion deficit that the congressman blames on poor fiscal management by the Glendening-Townsend administration.

Funding of higher education programs is receiving increasingly attention from the gubernatorial candidates as administrators, faculty and students question them about their commitment to support colleges and universities.

The Townsend campaign based its analysis on a statement by Ehrlich that he would propose a 4 percent across-the-board cut in state funds but he would not touch such programs as local aid and Medicaid. He also has made a commitment not to lay off state employees.

To the Townsend campaign that meant the focus would have to turn to higher education, which makes up about 9 percent of the state's general funds.

Townsend and Ehrlich have differing views about the emphasis that should be placed on funding for colleges and universities.

She said she wants to continue investing in higher education as Gov. Parris N. Glendening has done over eight years. She attributes the rise in College Park's stature among the nation's leading universities to the state's financial investment.

He said he believes Glendening went too far in creating more programs statewide than Maryland taxpayers can afford to fund, forcing the administration to spend down the state's Rainy Day Fund and look at the transportation trust fund for more spending. So now the only choice to resolve the budget problems is to make painful cuts, Ehrlich said.

Higher education and other state agencies have sustained cutbacks, and concern is growing among officials and students statewide that higher education could suffer more severe blows depending on who is the next governor.

"We already have lost our entire operating budget," said Judith P. Hallet, chairman of the classics department at the College Park campus. "I don't how we're going to pay our bills.

Hallet, who attended the forum, said Townsend knows what the issues are, but she and her colleagues have not heard Ehrlich address their concerns.

Eric M. Swalwell, president of the College Democrats group at the University of Maryland and forum organizer, said students are concerned about such issues as possible cuts to scholarship programs and grant money.

"They could hurt us, hurt us in our pocket," Swalwell said.

Paul Schurick, a spokesman for Ehrlich, said the congressman's proposals will not result in the kinds of drastic cuts suggested by the Townsend campaign. In addition to belt-tightening statewide, Ehrlich plans to help make up for the state's budget shortfall with revenue from slot machine gambling.

Earlier in the day, the candidates attended a forum in Rockville sponsored by the Technology Council of Maryland.

Ehrlich told a lunch crowd of more than 100 that he wants to help strengthen the state's economy by investing in small businesses.

"We are the pro-business ticket in this race," he said.

Some at the forum criticized the Glendening-Townsend administration as being anti-business as it poured money into areas such as higher education.

Townsend said that Glendening was not "as passionate" about such issues as she is.

"I am very, very dedicated to making sure the biotechnology community does well," she said.

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