Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. agreed yesterday to dedicate $250 million a year to school construction over the next five years.
The spending level would meet a threshold identified by a 2003 state commission on school facilities needs headed by Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp and is $500 million more than Ehrlich had planned for the next five fiscal years.
The governor's proposal was adopted unanimously yesterday by the state Capital Debt Affordability Committee, which includes Kopp, Budget Secretary Cecilia Januszkiewicz, Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan and citizen member Paul B. Meritt.
"My administration is deeply committed to ensuring that Maryland students learn in safe and modernized classrooms," Ehrlich said in a statement. "We cannot afford to allow lack of space and outdated facilities to limit the quality of our public school system."
School construction funding has been a hot political topic in Annapolis, with Democratic legislators criticizing the governor for not dedicating more resources to the cause.
During Ehrlich's term, which included a severe fiscal slowdown, the governor proposed on average about $153 million a year in funding, but the legislature annually added to his construction budget, bringing the annual average to about $211 million. The state and local school systems share the cost of school construction.
Ehrlich's Democratic opponent in the governor's race, Mayor Martin O'Malley, has promised to dedicate $400 million in his first year in office to "make up for underfunding under Ehrlich," his campaign spokesman, Rick Abbruzzese said. Thereafter, he proposes spending the $250 million that the Kopp Commission recommended.
The debt committee recommendations are guidelines, and actual spending decisions are made by the governor and legislature through the annual budget process.
In the current budget year, which began July 1, the state is slated to spend $338 million, $88 million more than it would next year if the committee's recommendation were adopted.
Kopp, a Montgomery County Democrat, said it is a positive development for the governor to agree to the $250 million threshold, a goal the state adopted into law in 2004. But she said even that might not be enough. "Now, because of inflation in the cost of building and the cost of materials, the school you could build with that amount of money in 2004 now costs about 30 percent more, so it's still a problem," she said.
Andrew A. Green
Prince George's: Upper Marlboro
Guilty plea made in travel theft
The operator of a travel business in Prince George's County has pleaded guilty to theft after he bilked dozens of people who thought they had purchased tickets and charter bus trips to Chicago to see The Oprah Winfrey Show.
Terrance M. Hawkins, 45, of Temple Hills had faced seven years in prison, but almost all of that was suspended after he agreed to pay full restitution of tens of thousands of dollars to about 60 victims, mostly senior citizens in Prince George's and Montgomery counties, within two years, said the Prince George's County state's attorney's office. He will be on supervised probation for three years.
Hawkins has paid back some victims and owes about $22,000.
He operated his businesses under the names Royal Travel and Royal Stages Travel Group. Prosecutors believe that between December 2004 and April 2005, he accepted payments from clients for trips that were never delivered.
Hawkins pleaded guilty to 17 counts of aggregate theft over $500 late Friday before Circuit Judge Thomas P. Smith. He is to be sentenced Sept. 29.
The Oprah Winfrey Show is free on a first-come, first-served basis.
"Hopefully, these victims will someday get their chance to see Oprah in person without having to worry about scam artists like Mr. Hawkins," State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey said yesterday.
Talbot County: Easton
Memorial group gets $80,000
A group working to build a Frederick Douglass memorial at the Talbot County Courthouse in Easton has been awarded $80,000.
The grant was given to the group Fred's Army by the Stories of the Chesapeake Heritage Area. Fred's Army hopes to raise nearly $1 million for a statue and has collected several hundred thousand dollars. "You cannot talk about the Eastern Shore without talking about Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman," said Moonyene Jackson-Amis, president of Fred's Army.
Council considers new noise bill
Complaints of noisy bars have led St. Michaels officials to consider a new noise ordinance.
A 2005 ordinance bars noise pollution but isn't clear how loud something must be to be in violation. The Town Council may set distances from which noise can be heard for it to be considered "noise pollution." Town officials are considering defining noise pollution as music played between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. that can be heard 50 feet away in a residential area or 100 feet away in a nonresidential area. Outdoor speakers aboard tour boats and church bells also would be exempt, as would sporting events and emergency operations.
Offenders could be fined up to $200 on a second offense. Town officials are expected to vote on a new noise ordinance Aug. 23.