`Pork' spending bill cuts will cost Maryland

December 16, 2005|By GWYNETH K. SHAW | GWYNETH K. SHAW,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- A $600 billion spending bill for social and educational programs is poised to clear Congress this week, but a decision to scrap projects requested by individual lawmakers will force agencies and institutions across Maryland to scramble for money they hoped would come from the federal government.

The legislation -- which provides funding for programs ranging from Medicaid to public schools and contains a number of budget cuts and spending freezes -- passed the House on Wednesday and is expected to win Senate approval over the next few days.

House and Senate negotiators, struggling to fit those programs into a budget smaller than this year's, agreed not to include any earmarked projects.

In past years, those projects -- often derided as "pork" on Capitol Hill -- have added up to as much as $1 billion, including about $10 million for Maryland programs in the fiscal year that ended in September.

Not this year.

For Baltimore Substance Abuse Systems Inc., the quasi-governmental agency that oversees drug treatment in the city, the no-earmarks rule could cripple, or end, a program that sends nonviolent drug offenders into treatment instead of jail.

The program, which received $248,000 in federal money this year, requested about $500,000 for 2006, spokeswoman Carol Ann Alleva said.

Without that money, she said, it's unclear whether the program can survive.

"Right now, we've been barely keeping it alive," Alleva said. "That means that people are going to be denied treatment."

Earmarks are a sensitive topic in Congress, and the request lists are closely held.

But Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, received about 80 requests for about $100 million in funding from state agencies and programs. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings submitted 24 projects for consideration.

The Baltimore Democrat didn't expect to get everything he asked for, but he said he was deeply disappointed that his top priorities -- including $2.5 million for a pediatric HIV program and $500,000 to improve technology in the city's schools -- would go without money.

"A lot of times when people hear the word `pork,' they think of money being wasted," Cummings said. "These programs are things that affect people who are most in need, and in most cases, they are young people."

Mikulski, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said she was particularly upset that money for Maryland nursing programs was not going to come through.

Last year, she secured funding for several programs aimed at increasing the number of nurses, who are in short supply nationwide.

For example, Villa Julie College got $248,000 to establish a distance learning program, in concert with several state hospitals and community colleges.

Mikulski also decried the bill's funding for the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda. While the agency would receive $253 million more than this year, the approximately 1 percent increase is essentially flat funding, she said, and is the smallest increase in several years.

"This is a terrible consequence for Maryland," Mikulski said.

Glenda LeGendre, a spokeswoman for Villa Julie, said the school remains hopeful of receiving federal funding for the program, which trains nurses in remote areas.

"There's no pork here," she said. "This is a proven program."

gwyneth.shaw@baltsun.com

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