Md. legislators' unsavory threat

Friday, April 9, 2010

MARYLAND LEGISLATORS are developing a bad habit of threatening to cut off funds for state universities that cross them.

Last year, Sen. Andrew P. Harris (R-Baltimore County) led the charge to withhold state funds from the University of Maryland at College Park after an on-campus screening of a pornographic movie. This was so despite the fact that the film was provided for free by the producer, a private student group sponsored the event and no public funds were spent. Dr. Harris -- a licensed physician -- eventually backed off.

This week, Maryland lawmakers dropped a similar threat -- this time to strip the university of money because its environmental law clinic helped the Assateague Coastal Trust file a lawsuit against an Eastern Shore chicken farm accused of polluting the Pocomoke River. The small poultry farm provides chickens for corporate behemoth Perdue Farms.

According to The Post's David A. Fahrenthold, Eastern Shore lawmakers were alerted to the law clinic's work by Jim Perdue, chairman of the company, who characterized this type of legal challenge as "the biggest threat to agriculture of the past 50 years." Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus (R-Somerset), among others, came to Perdue's rescue by threatening to withhold $500,000 in state funds from the university and requiring all of the school's law clinics to divulge information about clients and costs. In the end, the Senate excised the funding threat from its version of the budget, although it still requires the environmental law clinic to provide a report by Aug. 1 listing cases it has taken to court the past two years. The House shucked a similar provision last week.

The message for colleges and universities in the state is as clear as it is disturbing: Mess with a legislator's big corporate constituents or offend his sensibilities, and you can expect retaliation. It's good that the funding threat was dropped, but it never should have been made at all.

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