Balto. Co. lawmakers praise session's victories

School construction funding among top priorities

April 13, 2007|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,sun reporter

Baltimore County wanted lights and turf for athletic fields, skate ramps and new schools.

And for the most part, the county got it.

Some of the priorities of local officials -- such as halting construction of a liquefied natural gas terminal -- didn't win approval from lawmakers, who adjourned their session earlier this week. But at a meeting yesterday of the legislators, attended by Gov. Martin O'Malley, county officials celebrated their victories in Annapolis, including the record $52.25 million for public school construction and renovations.

"There is no resource more important to our communities than our schools and no tool more important to our children than a good education," Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. said at the annual "legislative wrap-up luncheon" at Oregon Ridge Park.

The new governor's appearance at the luncheon hosted by Smith was a contrast to former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s term in office. Smith has said he was snubbed by the Republican governor, who would not return his phone calls.

O'Malley thanked Smith and the eight senators and 21 delegates who represent the county in Annapolis for the positive tone of the session and for support on issues important to "strengthening the middle class."

"Expanding opportunity -- that was what this session was about," O'Malley said. "We've laid a foundation for progress for the future."

The governor received a standing ovation from the lawmakers and local department heads when he pledged to "do everything we can" to fight the proposed LNG plant on Sparrows Point.

Smith testified in Annapolis, urging legislators to pass a bill that would have required a review by state environmental officials before LNG or oil facilities could be built in coastal areas of Baltimore City and Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties. The measure passed in the House of Delegates last month but was not allowed out of Senate committee for a full vote.

Legislators succeeded on other issues, such as approving a pay increase for election judges and juvenile justice reforms sought by legislators representing neighborhoods in northwestern Baltimore County, which has the highest concentration of group homes in Maryland.

Sen. Bobby A. Zirkin, a Democrat representing Owings Mills, Reisterstown and Pikesville, said the practice of other jurisdictions sending troubled youth to Baltimore County will end.

He listed measures to increase the minimum age of caregivers in the homes, to create a mentoring program for the children and to establish a system for evaluating the juvenile facilities as important gains.

O'Malley also mentioned the list of "unsung legislation" -- laws that didn't get much media or public attention -- created by Del. Dan K. Morhaim, a Democrat and Owings Mills physician.

Among the approved legislation worth noting, according to Morhaim: an expanded electronics recycling program, a measure to ensure the accuracy of ingredients in medications, standards for crime labs, and a system giving doctors access to patient records at other hospitals.

"These are things that affect everyone," Morhaim said.

But they weren't highlighted in yesterday's speeches, which focused on record school funding -- more than half of the $95 million sought by county officials and 67 percent more than the amount approved last year. The allocation came as part of a $400 million package statewide for school construction.

Del. Adrienne A. Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat, said legislators wanted to provide as much money for schools as possible before they begin addressing a looming deficit estimated to be $1.3 billion next year.

"This is the year to do it," Jones said, adding, "We will not see $400 million next year. You can go to the bank on that."

Through the state bond bills, Baltimore County is to receive about $5.2 million for community projects and nonprofit organizations. But it was less than one-third of the $16 million sought by county officials and charities.

County officials said they still would be able to begin projects not funded by the state, including the Agricultural Resource Center and Farm Park near Oregon Ridge.

Elected officials have already begun the process of listing priorities for next year's session.

Zirkin said a work group on electing some members to the county's school board would begin meeting in the summer.

"There will be legislation on this next year," he promised.

Sun staff writer Josh Mitchell contributed to this article.

Baltimore County, 2007 Legislative Session at a Glance

What they got:

$250,000 for athletic lighting renovations at County Home Park, General John Stricker Middle School Recreation Center and Arbutus Middle School

$250,000 for athletic turf fields

$200,000 for a new facility for the Irvine Nature Center

$200,000 for new United Cerebral Palsy Foundation facility in Owings Mills

$250,000 for a children's learning center at Rosedale library

$100,000 for Northeast Skate Park in Overlea

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