After a long line of school superintendents and local leaders pleaded for money, Maryland's Board of Public Works yesterday approved a preliminary $78.5 million school construction budget that many officials said won't come close to meeting their needs.
Unofficially dubbed the "beg-a-thon," the meeting has become an annual rite in which local officials become supplicants before the governor, asking for money to build more schools, renovate old ones, fix broken boilers and create ball fields.
Yesterday's meeting was no different -- except that this year, with the state facing a $1.2 billion shortfall in the next fiscal year -- local officials were far more fatalistic about their chances.
"It's kind of hard to beg when there's no money," noted Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens (D).
The meeting also marked the first time Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) has attended a meeting of the three-member board, which approves the state's largest capital expenditures. Comptroller William Donald Schaefer (D), who had used the meetings to fire colorful polemics at former governor Parris N. Glendening (D), was downright pleasant.
Instead of his usual barbs, Schaefer told the audience to applaud for Ehrlich as he entered the room. Then he wrapped his arms around the new governor, pulling him tight.
"That's the first hug you've had from the governor in eight years," Ehrlich joked, referring to Glendening's two terms.
"That's the first time I've spoken to a governor in eight years," Schaefer retorted.
Despite the light mood, the local officials who filed into the ornate governor's reception room were anything but cheery. Under Ehrlich's spending plan, many were receiving a fraction of what they initially requested. Prince George's County had asked for almost $36 million but was slated to receive $4.6 million. Howard County requested $42.4 million but would get $3.2 million.
Of the $78.5 million, $60 million is already earmarked for specific projects, and $18.5 million is available for additional funding. But after the meeting yesterday, Ehrlich said his capital budget, to be released today, would have slightly more than $100 million for school construction. In the next few months, the board is to study the proposals and decide by May which additional projects to fund.
Even if the budget grows, the amount would be well below what the state has approved in recent years. Last year, it was $156 million. In 2001, the state spent $307 million.
"In the past, the expectations were very high because we were flush," Ehrlich said. "No one talked about when we wouldn't be flush. . . . You can't say yes to everyone."
As they came before the board, local leaders acknowledged the shortfall but still said they needed the money.
Howard's Board of Education recently approved an $86.3 million capital budget, its largest ever. It calls for a 12th high school and three new elementary schools, but County Executive James N. Robey (D) has said there is no way the county can pay for it all without significant state help. The budget situation is so tight that Robey is pushing the General Assembly to allow him to raise the real estate transfer tax, which is levied every time a property is sold. The tax increase would generate about $10 million for schools, he said.
Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) said the county's high schools need another 6,000 seats by 2006. "We've had tremendous growth," he said.
So has Montgomery County, but it scaled back its request to about $18.5 million, County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) said. It was awarded about $4 million. "We're very worried about" the prospect for school funding, Duncan said. "We've set back a lot of the school projects."
Next year, he said, the county and its crowded school system won't be able to put off those projects. "We're going to come back with a much bigger request," Duncan said, "of about $50 million."