Funds unsure for Md. groups

Budgets in limbo as sides spar over U.S. spending bill

December 03, 2007|By Matthew Hay Brown | Matthew Hay Brown,Sun reporter

WASHINGTON -- A year away from opening a new education complex in Owings Mills, the Irvine Nature Center had been counting on the $335,000 in federal funding that Rep. John Sarbanes worked to secure for it in the 2008 budget.

But with President Bush threatening to veto the spending bill that contains that earmark, the federal contribution to the $11.5 million building project is now in limbo.

"It makes it extremely difficult," said Michele Speaks, director of institutional advancement for the private, nonprofit center.

The Irvine Nature Center is one of dozens of Maryland organizations, public and private, waiting to learn if a budget impasse between the Democratic Congress and the Republican White House will affect their funding.

At stake is more than $70 million in earmarks, expenditures inserted by members of the state's congressional delegation to fund projects back home. Earmarks are likely to be among the first items to be scrutinized in any budget negotiation between the congressional leadership and the White House - or they could be dropped altogether, as was the case last year, when the Republican Congress left Washington without completing the appropriations process.

Lawmakers return from their Thanksgiving break today hopeful of resolving the budget impasse over the next two weeks. The Maryland funding at risk includes millions of dollars for road projects proposed to accommodate the influx of workers and residents expected with the expansion of Aberdeen Proving Ground, Fort Meade and other military bases in the state, along with millions for housing, job training, nursing education and other programs.

"You certainly don't want to count your chickens before they hatch," said Sarbanes, a Baltimore County Democrat. "Anytime you go get into this back and forth with the president over what the ultimate numbers are going to be, programs are going to be at risk - including the things that many in our delegation put forward as important priorities."

In the 12 spending bills that fund the federal government, Congress is proposing $22 billion more than the president has requested. Bush has signed only the defense spending bill; he vetoed the bill that funds the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services and Education, and has threatened to veto others.

"The majority was elected on a pledge of fiscal responsibility," he told an audience of business leaders in Indiana last month. "But so far it's acting like a teenager with a new credit card."

Nor does everyone believe that cutting out the earmarks would be a bad idea. Tom Schatz, president of the independent group Citizens Against Government Waste, says removing them could help close the gap between the sides.

"The Democrats, to their credit, have already reduced the number and cost of earmarks," he said. "Progress is being made. ... In our view, and I think most taxpayers' view, they could survive another year, if necessary, without them."

Earmarks are not the only Maryland funding at risk. Congress is proposing more than Bush requested for several programs, including Impact Aid, which pays school districts for students from military families, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which gives the state money for special education.

Funding for vocational training, Head Start and the Community Development Block Grant program also could be affected.

"It's not that we have overspent," said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski. "It's that he has underfunded."

The Maryland Democrat, who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee, expressed concern that Bush's "veto macho" threatens spending for the National Institutes of Health, which funds research at Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland. The spending bill that Bush vetoed included a $1.1 billion increase for the NIH, based in Bethesda.

"We could lose all of the gains that we're making in our national programs," Mikulski said.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, who has contrasted Bush's refusal to sign off on the $22 billion in additional funds that Congress has proposed with his request for $196 billion to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, expressed optimism that the sides can come to an agreement during the next two weeks.

Hoyer, a Southern Maryland Democrat, sees no appetite on either side for shutting down the government. But if they don't come to an agreement, they could end up resorting to a continuing resolution to keep government funded - which is how earmarks got stripped out last year.

"If we are not successful, there is no doubt that initiatives that have been added by members of Congress to invest in their own communities, whatever they might be in, are going to be at risk," Hoyer said. "We hope that doesn't happen."

Organizations across the state are watching and waiting.

Speaks says the Irvine Nature Center serves more than 13,000 children and adults each year out of a 5,000-square-foot barn it leases with access to about 30 acres on the grounds of St. Timothy's School in Stevenson.

The 32-year-old center is planning to move to a new 17,000-square-foot complex with classrooms, laboratories, exhibit space and an auditorium on 116 acres that it owns in Owings Mills, where, Speaks said, it could initially serve 25,000 people per year.

The nature center also receives money from the state, private foundations and individual donors. The project would survive the loss of federal funds, Speaks said, but it would become more difficult.

"The service that we provide, it requires partnerships," Speaks said. "We certainly wouldn't be able to do what we do alone."

matthew.brown@baltsun.com

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