ANNAPOLIS – Despite a slowing economy, Montgomery County lawmakers congratulated themselves Tuesday on winning a sizable chunk of construction funds and passing many favorite bills during the General Assembly session that closed Monday.
“We had a very successful session,” said Delegate Kumar Barve, D- Montgomery, the county’s House delegation chairman. “This year was especially satisfying.”
Senate delegation Chairwoman Ida Ruben, D-Montgomery, echoed Barve’s statement, saying she was especially thankful to finally see a law lowering the drunken-driving blood-alcohol limit to .08 — a measure she supported for 5 years.
County legislators expect to receive about $180 million, pending a $17.1 million increase in public school construction funds, from the governor’s $505 million capital budget, a 65 percent increase over last year.
“We were able to bring home a lot of bacon to the county,” Barve said.
“What an accomplishment that is,” said County Executive Douglas M. Duncan. “That’s why this year was so extraordinary.”
The capital funds include $42.4 million for the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute’s Center for Advanced Research in Biotechnology in Shady Grove, $28 million in construction funds for Strathmore Concert Hall, $18.2 million for Silver Spring District Court and $13.2 million for Montgomery College’s Takoma Park campus.
Montgomery County’s major funding priorities this year were schools and roads. The county received plenty of funding for both, but legislators would still like more.
The county is counting on the $180 million in capital funds from the state, but a portion hinges upon the Board of Public Works, which will decide next month whether to grant extra public school construction funds.
Montgomery County originally requested more than $55 million for public school construction, but received only $32.9 million from the $250 million available. Duncan said he hopes to notch that figure up to $50 million.
The county received about two-thirds of its requested transportation funds, said Duncan.
“We did very well with transit funding,” but more is still needed for the increasingly crowded county, Duncan said. “We need to get the ICC (Inter-County Connector) built. We need to get the Purple Line built.”
The Inter-County Connector was a road project, killed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening out of environmental concerns, to connect I-270 with I-95. The Purple Line is a proposed Metro rail line linking existing Metro rail lines in an arc paralleling the Capital Beltway. Although Montgomery County leaders were excited by their success at the state level this year, next year may not be as rosy. The state is facing a predicted $300 million deficit in 2003, and numerous lawmakers have criticized Gov. Parris N. Glendening’s $21.3 billion operating budget for 2002 for spending down reserve funds. “I am expecting a much tighter budget next year,” said Duncan. “But we’re happy for this year.” Montgomery County already faces a significant funding shortage. The County Council is warning that without some cuts it will post a $12.6 million construction budget deficit by 2004. Local leaders also are criticizing Duncan’s $2.7 billion operating budget, leading some to propose tax increases to generate enough revenue. Mostly satisfied with 2001’s session, county legislators are already mulling plans for next year. Barve was glad his technology incubator project passed the General Assembly this year, procuring $5 million to nurture new companies. But he’d like to see an annual $5 million allocation for this project in the future. Before the 2002 session convenes, Barve plans to gather his House Science and Technology Subcommittee members and other technology-minded people together to discuss the status of the state’s technology industry. “It’s time for us to reassess where we are,” he said. Sen. Patrick J. Hogan, D-Montgomery, will again introduce his constitutional amendment to grant the Legislature power to amend the governor’s budget in 2002. The amendment failed in February after some senators, nervous that the governor would withhold capital funds from their pet projects, withdrew support from the bill. But their inability to make some desired changes in the governor’s record-setting budget has made some legislators begin to reconsider, Hogan said. “It’s coming back next year, stronger than ever,” he said. “I think next year could be the year.”