By Chris Bubeck and Patrice Pascual
ANNAPOLIS – Western Maryland lawmakers gave generally high marks to Gov. Parris Glendening’s calls Wednesday for more spending on schools, services for the disabled and health care for the poor.
The region’s lawmakers were particularly pleased with the governor’s announcement that the state would build another prison in Western Maryland.
But like most rural-area lawmakers, Western Maryland legislators said they were worried about the governor’s call for regulations to rein in Pfiesteria piscicida and the impact that it could have on farmers.
“It is a major issue and one that needs further examination,” said Del. George Edwards, R-Garrett.
Many delegation members said the debate over pfiesteria, a toxic microbe that has been blamed for fishkills on the Eastern Shore, could be one of the more heavily debated issues this session.
Overall, however, Western Maryland lawmakers appeared pleased with the speech.
“I look forward to working with him in accomplishing all the important issues he’s dealing with,” said House Speaker Casper Taylor, D-Allegany.
He, like many other members of the delegation, supported the governor’s call for increased spending on schools. They also backed his proposals to improve health care, increase higher education, especially in technology, and to continue decrease in crime.
Sen. Donald Munson, R-Washington, said the promised construction of a new prison is important for the state as well as the region.
“There is no question the drug culture we are living in will require more prisons,” said Munson.
But while they expressed satisfaction with the overall speech, some were disappointed that Glendening did not propose using a $283 million budget surplus for further income tax cuts.
Edwards said a tax cut would have been a better use of the budget surplus, putting money in people’s hands that they would spend and in turn benefit the economy. Sen. John Hafer, R- Allegany, and Sen. John Derr, R-Frederick, also supported using more of the surplus to reduce income taxes.
In his 37-minute speech, Glendening cited Maryland’s $283 million budget surplus and proposed that $100 million of it be banked to pay for the 10 percent income tax reductions approved last year. Those cuts, he said, “will return more than $1 billion to the people of Maryland over the next five years.”
With a flush treasury and a re-election campaign ahead, Glendening said spending on children, jobs and controlling toxic pfiesteria would be at the top of his 1998 legislative agenda.
The governor was interrupted by applause 20 times during his talk, which was peppered with historic references to Maryland as a place of “liberty and opportunity.”
Applause was noticeably absent as the governor talked about his proposals to fight the re-emergence of pfiesteria.
His agenda calls for reducing fertilizer runoff from farms as a way to control pfiesteria. Specifically, he called for all farms to have nutrient management plans by 2000 with “strong enforcement mechanisms” for non-compliance.
Edwards and Hafer said there is no concrete proof that the problems related to the toxic microorganism are a result of nutrient runoffs from farms. Hafer added, that as a farmer, he knows that most farmers are interested in keeping nutrients from running off their fields.
The governor took pains to point out that “the state is not blaming farmers for the outbreaks” of pfiesteria that led him to order some waterways closed last summer.
His plan also calls for state programs to educate suburban homeowners on responsible use of fertilizers and it earmarks $1.6 million for research into the still-mysterious microbe.
The plan will affect all farms in Maryland, even though pfiesteria problems have been limited to the Eastern Shore.
“I don’t think we have much of a choice,” said Derr.
Glendening pledged the most money for public education, including $222 million in capital improvements to schools, and an additional $181 million for “additional teachers, textbooks, and to support science and arts programs.”
He also pledged an additional $64 million for higher education, the first installment on a promised $635 million for colleges over the next four years, and an extra $119 million for capital improvements on state campuses.
Republicans said the speech promised too much to too many. Del. Robert L. Flanagan, R-Howard, charged that “the governor is using the $283 million as a campaign fund. When he was Prince George’s County executive, he made promises that couldn’t be kept. …He’s setting up the next governor for the same thing.”
Glendening used a prop to underscore his plan to fund regular health care for 60,000 of Maryland’s uninsured children. Holding up what looked to be a used bottle of pink antibiotic, familiar to most any parent, he said such low-cost treatments under his plan would save the state costly payments for treatment of serious ear problems later. That line earned sustained applause.
Glendening’s best-received item was a proposed 50 percent increase in the fund for fire protection and rescue services, a tribute to the late Sen. Bill Amoss, D-Harford, who died last year.
The governor also advocated increased spending for the 5,300 citizens with disabilities whom he said are waiting for state services.