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State Funds for Schools, Stadium Please Area Leaders

By Joshua Partlow and Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, April 17, 2005; Page SM03

The General Assembly's 2005 session brought Southern Maryland additional money for building schools, funds to design the controversial minor league baseball stadium in Charles County and probably a study of the region's transportation needs.

Many legislators said local projects generally fared well in what they called a bitterly partisan session.

Charles officials were pleased that the county received an additional $5.4 million in school construction funding after $100 million was added to the school building budget proposed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R). Before that, the county had received a state funding commitment for $2.9 million of the $15 million it requested.

"This is Christmas in April for school construction," said Charles L. Wineland, the county's assistant superintendent for supporting services. "We're just very surprised and very happy that they were able to come up with this money at the last minute."

Of the new funds, $2.9 million will go toward the new North Point High School. About $1.7 million will help fund a new middle school, Wineland said.

Officials in Calvert and Charles also expressed relief that Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and other area lawmakers were able to restore a key state grant that Ehrlich had eliminated in his proposed budget. The grant, which the counties have received since the state deregulated electric utilities, provides $6.1 million a year to Calvert and $2.5 million to Charles to make up for local tax revenue lost because of deregulation.

Southern Maryland legislators secured funding for several projects through bond bills. In Charles, $325,000 was committed to design and engineering for a proposed minor league ballpark on Piney Church Road in Waldorf. Sen. Thomas M. Middleton (D-Charles) said this was the first step toward full state funding. He said he hopes some of the $6 million state share of the $18 million construction cost would make it into Ehrlich's capital budget next year.

Many residents have fought to keep public funds from being spent on the project, but Middleton said a stadium could "become the focal point of the community. The citizens just absolutely love them." The General Assembly also passed a bill allowing the county to create a liquor license for beer and wine sales at a stadium.

One of Charles County's top priorities was a bill favored by the teachers union that had failed in several attempts. The legislation, which passed both houses, would allow the county to negotiate a fee to be charged to teachers who are not members of the union. Because all teachers benefit from contracts negotiated and enforced by the Education Association of Charles County, union officials say that nonunion teachers should pay something for these services. Former delegate Van T. Mitchell (D) had been an opponent of the bill, but this year there was more support.

"It's just a matter of fairness," said Del. W. Daniel Mayer (R-Charles). "Other counties have it."

For Sen. Roy P. Dyson (D-St. Mary's), this session also rewarded his persistent push on a bill aimed at stemming teenage driving deaths. Since 1996, Dyson has sponsored a bill to bar drivers during the early months of holding a provisional driver's license from carrying teenage passengers who are not family members. Riding a wave of public concern over a spate of recent accidents in which teenage drivers or passengers were killed, several of them in Montgomery County, the bill passed and is awaiting Ehrlich's signature.

"Teens may not like the idea, but in the end it will save their lives," Dyson said. "Unfortunately, it took a lot of accidents this year for the other side to see this is important legislation."

Another successful bill, sponsored by Dyson, Middleton and Miller, established a commission to study Southern Maryland transportation issues and report to Ehrlich or the General Assembly by Nov. 1 of next year. Dyson supports bringing light rail service to the region, saying it would alleviate traffic congestion and get people to work even if a large accident blocks one of the few major highways heading north.

"Some day this will all happen, and we need to have the vision to say, 'Let's prepare now for all of this,' " Dyson said. "We already have a heavy rail that comes into our area, the CSX line that goes into [Charles and St. Mary's counties]. . . . That's something that could be utilized now."

This session also had its disappointments for the delegation. Del. Murray D. Levy (D-Charles) said he was upset that a bill that would have given an income tax credit to veterans stalled in the Senate. Levy, who was appointed to the appropriations committee as a rookie delegate, said he was also disappointed about a failed bill that would have given college tuition credit to Maryland soldiers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mayer said he was disappointed that legislators were not able to reach a compromise on the governor's slot machine gambling initiative. The reason for the legislative gridlock?

"Egos," Mayer said. "Only one word: egos."

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