A House of Delegates subcommittee recommended today that the legislature instruct Gov. Harry Hughes to reconsider his selection of Somerset County for a new Maryland prison.
The appropriations subcommittee on prisons and transportation asked that the final decision on a site be delayed at least until Nov. 1 so Hughes can reconsider his decision. If the subcommittee proposal is upheld by the full House of Delegates, as expected, and the Senate, it could delay construction, due to start by the end of this year, for six months.
This afternoon, at his weekly press conference, Hughes was adamant about not changing sites at this late date. "We've made a site selection and we should go ahead as rapidly as possible," Hughes said. "I would hope that the legislature, which has complained about delays in this project, would not bring about any further delays."
The subcommittee's action took the form of a budget amendment that said the governor may not spend any money on a new prison until Nov. 1. The amendment requested that the governor and the other members of the Board of Public Works examine sites in Somerset and Cecil County.
The subcommittee, headed by Del. Timothy F. Maloney (D-Prince George's), said Hughes' decision to put the prison in Somerset was based on the willingness of the county commissioners there to accept a prison and not on whether it was the best location.
"If the governor says we should build a prison on the moon, that doesn't mean we're going to do it if we think it's a bad site," Maloney said. "We think the governor acted hastily on this. The legislature is not going to do the same thing."
The subcommittee's action followed a Tuesday visit to the proposed Somerset site by Maloney and Appropriations Committee Chairman R. Clayton Mitchell Jr. (D-Kent). The two came back convinced that construction problems plus the site's location near a highway and a populated part of town, as well as the area's high water table, made it a bad choice.
Hughes and the legislature have been wrangling over the new prison for more than a year. Late last year, a gubernatorial task force was prepared to recommend that the prison be situated in Cecil County when Somerset's commissioners requested the prison. Within 10 days, the task force recommended Somerset to Hughes, who accepted their advice.
Hughes also announced today that rather than build temporary facilities during the next year to accommodate 600 more prisoners, he will recommend that construction of another prison in Hagerstown be accelerated.
Hughes' new opposition to temporary facilities comes after the governor was rebuffed Monday in an effort to get the Washington County commissioners to accept them. "We came up with this idea last week, after we met with the commissioners," Hughes said, forgetting the meeting was Monday. "It's been a long week," he added when corrected.
Maloney also disagreed with Hughes on the subject of temporary facilities. "If we just accelerate, we're still going to be 600 beds short," he said. "The system is overcrowded now and this isn't going to help things any."
This afternoon, Maloney and his subcommittee presented their report on the capital budget to the full Appropriations Committee, which is expected to back the subcommittee.
And the committee has the backing of House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin. "They have some problems with the site and they want the governor to take another look," Cardin said. "The delay involved is minor and the final decision, ultimately, will still rest with the governor."
Said Hughes: "I have made a final decision."