Tucked into Maryland’s capital budget for far-reaching bricks-and-mortar projects are millions of dollars for smaller-ticket pet programs — the state’s version of congressional earmarks. There’s money for athletic arena lights in Germantown, a giraffe conservation center north of Baltimore, a water park in Gaithersburg and a replica of a historic lighthouse on the Eastern Shore.
At a time when some lawmakers say they are concerned about the Free State’s growing debt, legislators are asking the state to go deeper into debt to pay for local projects that primarily benefit individual constituents.
In the $947 million capital budget approved by the House of Delegates on a 98 to 41 vote Tuesday, the $15 million set aside for legislative initiatives represents less than 2 percent of new borrowing.
However, Republicans in the House have urged Democratic leaders to take a small but symbolic step to cut the state’s annual debt costs by swearing off earmarks this year. Maryland already is bumping up against one of its debt limits for the first time in three decades because of sluggish revenue and the state’s dependence on borrowing.
“The focus should be on reversing the damage, not making it worse,” House Republican leaders wrote in a letter to Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel). The letter acknowledges that many of the programs the General Assembly has supported are worthwhile but urges the House to postpone funding until “the state’s fiscal condition improves.”
But even one of the GOP’s top leaders departed from the party’s recommendation. Republican Whip Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio (Talbot), who signed the January letter to Busch, backed a request for $300,000 to help pay for the construction of a replica of a historic lighthouse on the waterfront in Cambridge, which is in her district.
The House version of the budget that passed Tuesday includes $150,000 to build a model of a lighthouse that guided ships on the Choptank River from 1871 to 1964, according to a description of the project. Haddaway-Riccio said the lighthouse is part of a “larger vision” for economic development and tourism in the area.
“You’d be surprised by the number of visitors that go to lighthouses,” she said.
Individual legislators generally have little say over the shape of the state’s capital spending plan, initially drafted by Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and designed primarily to fund construction of public schools and road projects such as the Intercounty Connector. But the bond bills give lawmakers a more direct line to help people in their districts through organizations, for instance, that work with the homeless, seniors and people with disabilities. It can also give them something to brag about on the campaign trail.
Supporters say state bonds for local projects act as seed money to attract donations and other investments. Maryland, which has an AAA bond rating, already moved through self-imposed limits to shrink the amount of new debt created this year by $215 million.
“I tend to believe that earmarks are not rancid pork. For the most part, we’ve used earmarks well,” said Del. John L. Bohanan Jr. (D-St. Mary’s), who leads the spending affordability committee that sets guidelines for state debt.
Senate Republican leader Nancy Jacobs (Harford) said she admires her GOP colleagues in the House for taking a principled stand against the creation of more state debt. But Jacobs said she recognized the political reality that Democratic leaders, who control both chambers, were going to divvy up the money regardless, and she didn’t want her constituents to get “shortchanged.”
Jacobs and a House colleague, Del. David D. Rudolph (D-Cecil), secured $100,000 to help the Plumpton Park Zoological Gardens in Rising Sun build a Giraffe Conservation and Education Center that will house the zoo’s giraffe and provide meeting space for the community, according to the funding request.
“If you don’t put a bill in, it’s just going to go to another county, and the people you want to help don’t have the opportunity to benefit,” said Jacobs.
For high school athletes and their boosters in Baltimore County, the House budget includes a small amount of money — $65,000 — that backers say will provide a much-needed new concession stand and bathrooms at Catonsville High School’s stadium. Del. James E. Malone Jr. (D-Baltimore County), who backed the request, said the current stand does not face the field, so parents selling sodas are unable to watch their children in action. And they must rely on port-a-potties.
“Who in their right mind is going to want to work the concession stand?” said Malone, who grew up playing football and has a daughter who has played lacrosse on the field.
As recently as 2003, the General Assembly pulled the plug on bond bills because of the state’s troubled finances that year. But even the most fiscally conservative legislators who have taken a no-bond-bill pledge this year say it has not been easy. Lawmakers are often inundated with requests to fund worthy-sounding initiatives.
“People in the district aren’t happy that they’re not getting their money,” said Del. Stephen S. Hershey Jr. (R-Queen Anne’s), a member of the House Tea Party Caucus, which opposes bond bills. “You’d love to be able to say yes, but we’re not in any condition to say so.”
House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery) said there’s no need to say no. Pointing to the state’s well-regarded bond rating, he said he is comfortable with the state borrowing more money as long as “what you’re buying lasts longer than the loan.”
Barve asked for $450,000 to help the city of Gaithersburg renovate a water park at Bohrer Park. He ultimately secured $125,000. City officials described in their application the need to overhaul pool decks and drains and to resurface a water slide, plus the possibility of including “additional play features and an ultraviolet pool disinfectant system.”
“It’s an affordable amenity that working-class and middle-class people should be able to have,” Barve said. “It’s not in horrific shape, but like anything else, it needs upgrading.”
Staff writer Aaron C. Davis contributed to this report.