Keep state funding level, Owens urges legislators

Department heads told to identify possible cuts

January 08, 2003|By Ryan Davis | Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

For the first time in her five years as county executive, Janet S. Owens has no wish list for Anne Arundel County's legislative delegation. Instead, at yesterday's annual pre-session gathering she arrived with a new mantra:

"Hold the line."

Last year, the state funded $50 million of the county's $883 million operating budget. That doesn't include more than $200 million the state gave for K-12 education and Anne Arundel Community College.

With a $1.2 billion state budget deficit looming in the next two years, just getting the same amount sounds good, Owens and County Council members said.

"It's the minimum we need to run Anne Arundel County," said County Council Chairwoman Cathleen M. Vitale.

The 90-day legislative session begins tomorrow.

After the breakfast meeting, it remained unclear what would happen if the county failed to get all the money it's seeking.

Owens said during the breakfast that she has asked county department heads to prepare hypothetical budgets cuts as big as 10 percent. "When we get to 10 percent cuts, we're talking real people, real services," Owens warned.

"The county executive is trying to hold the line on taxes," said administration spokesman Matt Diehl.

Yesterday morning's event at Harry Browne's restaurant on State Circle was like a glimpse into a locker room before the big game.

County council members gave pep talks to the legislators; so did Owens and her staff. And everyone talked about good communication producing good results.

Despite all the talk of teamwork, signs of division emerged. Although Del. Tony McConkey, a Republican from District 33A, stopped by before the breakfast and 31st District Republican Del. John R. Leopold attended most of it, the rest of the county's Republican legislators were absent.

"I don't want to comment on them," Leopold said of the rest of the GOP delegation. "I thought it was important to attend."

He said most of the Republicans were at a nearby Republican caucus campaign contributor breakfast with Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

"I'm disappointed," said Owens, a Democrat from Millersville. "Since they were next door, I was hoping they would drop by."

The Republican legislators' absence underscores the tension between the parties, some Democrats said.

Last week, the county's Republican Central Committee filed a lawsuit against the delegations' Democrats. Republicans allege the Democrats - including two lame duck legislators - wrongfully voted to give full delegation voting rights to Prince George's County legislators who represent a sliver of Anne Arundel. The move preserved Democratic control over the delegation.

"It doesn't bode well going into a legislative session," said Del. Michael E. Busch, a 30th District Democrat and the incoming speaker of the House of Delegates.

He said he wasn't going to read anything into Republicans' absence, but said, "You should ask them, `Don't you think it would be more important to be at a function where you're discussing the issues that are going to affect your constituents rather than a fund-raiser?'"

Republicans said they weren't trying to send a message.

Del. David G. Boschert of District 33 said he had prior obligations wrapping up business for his job as president of a public affairs consulting firm.

Del. James E. Rzepkowski of District 32 said: "It underscores a scheduling conflict. I hate to say it, but Governor Ehrlich is a lot more exciting than County Executive Owens, particularly at this point in the year to Republicans."

At the breakfast, Owens suggested that the most vulnerable area of state aid is the $26.1 million the county received this budget year for transportation and the $7.8 million it received as a utility deregulation property tax grant.

Most of the transportation money is used to build and repair roads. The deregulation money is part of program that provides tax breaks to utilities and grant money to counties. County officials fought last year to keep the plan.

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