Groups hope cuts aren't political

Some won't get state funds that they received last year

January 23, 2004|By David Nitkin and Howard Libit | David Nitkin and Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Buried in the dense columns of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s 2,584-page proposed budget is what appears to be juicy political retribution.

The governor's office dismissed concerns yesterday that some budget cuts fall disproportionately on organizations with ties to his opponents, including former Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

"Absolutely not," said budget secretary James C. "Chip" DiPaula Jr.

But clues that indicate otherwise are tantalizing.

Ehrlich and his aides didn't mention it when they released their $23.8 billion spending plan this week, but the governor wants to eliminate educational grant money for Best Buddies International.

The organization, which received $211,000 in education money this year, would get none for that purpose next year. Best Buddies was founded by Townsend's cousin, Anthony K. Shriver and teaches social skills to people with disabilities. A photograph of Ehrlich and first lady Kendel Ehrlich is prominently displayed on the Maryland chapter's Web site.

"It is going to be quite devastating for our programs," said Katie Nohe, its regional director.

Also eliminated was money for an educational program run by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a participant in the effort to reject Ehrlich's first nominee for environmental secretary. The governor still bristles when the topic arises.

"I was told it was a deliberate action done with careful thought" to close the budget gap, said William C. Baker, president of the foundation, which is receiving $326,000 in the current year's budget but nothing next year.

"The only real explanation is that they thought we might be able to raise the money elsewhere, and that this would save the state some money."

Both Best Buddies and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation are among 28 private groups that received state education grants in the past.

They were the only two of the 28 to receive no money in the governor's budget, which would take effect July 1.

While Ehrlich looked for some spending cuts to help close an $800 million gap between revenues and expenses, the educational grant funding increased overall, from $3.4 million to $3.6 million.

DiPaula said Best Buddies funding was eliminated because of consolidation.

The group also receives money through state health funding, and two budget items were put together, he said.

But that health funding was eliminated in this year's budget.

The governor wants to restore about $200,000 in health funding for adult programs, including an online buddy match in which Kendel Ehrlich participates, but wipe out the education grant, which serves middle- and high-school students.

Nohe said the shift has an effect. Overall, Best Buddies is losing $300,000 over two years. Asked if she thought the cut was politically motivated, Nohe said: "We hope not." Shriver did not return telephone messages.

Ehrlich, who has been a supporter of disability programs, proposed creating a Cabinet-level office to serve the disabled.

The bay foundation has been receiving a grant from the state for 28 years, including $325,000 in the current year, but DiPaula said his staff initially determined that the program was not central to the education department's mission.

The money pays for trips for teachers and students, and the foundation matches every state dollar with more than $3 in private donations.

"We are worried that the private donors - individuals, corporations and foundations - would be less interested if it were not a private-public partnership," Baker said.

Although in the past year the foundation has been critical of state and federal efforts to clean the bay, most recently the group has been generally supportive of an Ehrlich idea to establish a $2.50 fee for most homeowners to fund sewage plant upgrades.

Baker declined to say whether he thought the cut was political, but said that, after further discussions, the governor and DiPaula have agreed to restore the funding.

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