Conway’s departure could mean big funding changes

Conway MAIN

In the past 10 years, the state has sent $508.2 million to the three Lower Shore counties for capital projects benefiting everything from Salisbury University ($240 million) to Westside Primary School ($280,000).

In just the past five years, $2.86 million in bond bills — money used to aid capital projects that aren’t state-affiliated, such as health facilities, museums, and recreational facilities — has come to the Lower Shore, with such recipients as the Parsonsburg Fire Company Community Center ($250,000) and the Willards Lions Club ($50,000).

As chairman of the House Appropriations Committee since 2003, Delegate Norman Conway’s fingerprints have been on every one of those Shore-bound dollars.

With Conway’s jarring loss in the November elections, the longtime legislator and former Salisbury City Council president will presumably begin his retirement years, comfortable in his Johnson’s Lake neighborhood off Whittier Drive.

Meanwhile, the Lower Shore’s lawmakers and administrators will be traversing a new landscape, one in which Conway won’t be there to help when dollars are needed from Annapolis.

“Norm Conway was, unquestionably, the Eastern Shore’s champion in Annapolis,” said Salisbury University President Dr. Janet Dudley-Eshbach. “It would be difficult to underestimate the influence he had with the powerbrokers of our state and the many benefits to our region’s economic well-being.”

JanetCounty Executive Rick Pollitt, himself an Election Day casualty, tried to put Conway’s financial strengths in perspective.

“There is a difference in spending money to buy things and spending money to invest in the community,” said Pollitt. “The state funding Chairman Conway was able to bring to Wicomico County greatly enhanced the quality of our public education system, our public health system, our river transportation system and a wide variety of other components of our community.”
Added Pollitt: “The jobs alone produced by all of the projects that Norm was responsible for kept this community working in good times and bad.”

Dudley-Eshbach offered further perspective: “Whether it was support for the Holly Center, Coastal Hospice, Atlantic General Hospital; the acquisition of a new fire truck to better serve the local community; or funding to air-condition the gym in the Maggs fieldhouse here at Salisbury University — these are but a few examples of what Norm was able to accomplish.

“In terms of the state budget, for years Norm has been a rainmaker for our sometimes short-changed Eastern Shore.”

According to the man who knocked off the 27-year incumbent, the days of such rainmaking may be over.

“The state is looking at a $400 million to $900 million deficit,” said Carlton Anderton, the newly elected delegate. “There was a lot of foolish overspending that happened in the past seven years.”

Carl AndertonThe current Delmar mayor, Anderton said: “You’re at a crossroad here. Do you want to throw caution to the wind and just blow a hole in Maryland’s future and go past the point of no return? Or do you want to be a little more cautious with your money?”

A Republican, Anderton noted that Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley wasn’t as cautious as necessary when it came to the state’s coffers.

“In 2006, when O’Malley took over, they were ahead a million dollars, which quickly became a deficit,” he said. “There were $9 billion in new taxes (imposed) and they increased spending by $10 billion, so we’re still $1 billion upside down.”

He added: “We still need to bring money here for schools and things of that nature, that goes without saying. But we have to be a little more smart with our money.”

Salisbury Mayor Jim Ireton sympathized with Anderton’s ideals, but said the road ahead will be different when it comes to Statehouse politics.

“For our institutions, such as Salisbury University, UMES, and Wor-Wic, this could complicate issues,” he said. “My general feeling is that Mayor Anderton was elected because people wanted Annapolis to do less, spend less, and tax less. I don’t completely disagree with that sentiment, yet the economic engines that our education institutions and PRMC are — have had an incredible relationship with Mr. Conway.

IretonmugAdded Ireton: “Delegate-elect Anderton will have to decide if he is going to embrace cooperation with Annapolis, for the continued growth of these institutions, or if he will satisfy the far right-wing of his party and say “no” on every vote. I wish him luck.”

For Anderton, it’s a matter of simple common sense.

“For the past seven years we’ve heard we have to tighten our belts. Now we have to really tighten them without just saying it,” he said. “We’ve tried to get out of the  hole by taxing everybody above and beyond what we should have, and it failed miserably, so now let’s try the opposite approach.”

Dudley-Eshbach, whose leadership has helped to make her institution a darling of state legislators, said she’s hopeful — but also bracing for what’s next.

“From a practical perspective, I do hope our new Academic Commons and other projects can stay on track. Cuts in the capital budget will be detrimental,” she said. “Further, reductions in the state’s operating budgets could result in layoffs and retrenchments.

“Let’s hope the new Governor’s decisions promote economic recovery; that will be his biggest challenge.”

Anderton, meanwhile, pointed to SU capital spending as a potential target.

“We are spending $120 million for a library,” he said. “Don’t you think we could have built a really nice building for $60 million?

“I have heard that the cost per square foot of that building is $500 a square foot. That’s not even close to being in the market for sensible construction, but again I’m not an expert on that. But I know you could do a lot more with less.”

He added: “We’ve done it here on the Eastern Shore. Annapolis could do more with less. That’s why I’m going to help Gov. Hogan and the new legislature get us back on a fiscal track, so our grandchildren can have a chance to have a decent quality of life … Otherwise they’ll be paying for generations to come.”

Anderton said he understands the value SU offers the community.

Rick Pollitt“SU is a tremendous asset. We need to foster and grow that and we need to be a little more sensible with it. You have a certain amount of money and you just have to deal with a certain amount of money instead of this constant borrowing,” he said.

“You hit a point where you borrow so much you’re really going to feel that. You have to ask yourself, ‘Was it worth it?’

“I feel like I’m that guy with a shovel coming in the clean up the mess after the party is over.”

Pollitt, meanwhile, offered another perspective.

“The uninformed among us who would have turned the money away and who do not appreciate the impact Norm’s work has made on our community should realize that everyone of those dollars, had they not come to our county, would have certainly been spent in some other area of the state,” he said.

Dr. Ray Hoy, president at Wor-Wic Community College, said Wor-Wic — and the students who attend there — owe a lot to Conway.

“His influence as chair of the appropriations committee, and prior to that role as appropriations vice-chair and capital committee chair, was a major factor in the state’s support of all of the capital projects at Wor-Wic since 1997,” Hoy said.

Hoy mug“The growth of the college was, in a large part, made possible through his work in the legislature on our behalf. When I had concerns over legislation or funding, representatives from both sides of the aisle would ask me if I had talked to Norm.”

State Sen. Jim Mathias said he will do his best to fill in as the Shore’s senior legislator, now that Conway will be out of the picture.

“I’ll just work to continue to be effective,” said Mathias, a Democrat. “Norm has been terrific; he’s been a fabulous partner and mentor. But in the last eight years I’ve built relationships — I’ll just have to strengthen those relationships and build new ones.”

Mathias said the Democratic leadership that still controls the legislature understands “how critical our needs are,” but added the Eastern Shore delegation “has to be cohesive.”

“You don’t take the field in baseball and try to play all of the positions by yourself,” he said. “We’re going to have to check our philosophies” to get things accomplished.

Dudley-Eshbach, who has seen the gears of government up close in both Maryland and West Virginia, offered a viewpoint that reveals the competing philosophies.

“Many Democratic and independent Marylanders voted Republican this past Nov. 4th because they were dismayed by what we’ve seen in so many of our elected officials, and of course the promise of tax relief has great appeal,” she said.

“But let’s face it: Taxes fund good roads and sound bridges; taxes support the unemployed, disabled and elderly; and tax revenues have helped keep in-state tuition low at Maryland’s colleges and universities.

“Change is inevitable; let’s strap ourselves in for the changes that will be coming,” she said.

Lower Shore State School Funding 2004-14:

  • Bennett High School $31.155 million
  • Bennett Middle School $26.585 million
  • Deal Island Elementary $1.576 million
  • Delmar Elementary $458,000
  • Fruitland Intermediate $579,000
  • Greenwood Elementary $5.8 million
  • Mardela Middle and High $469,000
  • North Salisbury Elementary $6.42 million
  • Ocean City Elementary $2.75 million
  • Pittsville Elementary and Middle $1.562 million
  • Pocomoke High school $7.029 million
  • Prince Street Elementary $5.189 million
  • Salisbury University $240.348 million
  • Snow Hill High School $4.2 million
  • Somerset Intermediate School $20.075 million
  • University of Maryland Eastern Shore $96.413 million
  • Washington High School $11.721 million
  • Westside Primary School $280,000
  • Willards Elementary $713,000
  • Woodson Elementary $8.522 million
  • Worcester Career and Tech Center $4.783 million
  • Wor-Wic Community College $31.568 million

Significant Wicomico state bond bills of the last four years:

  • YMCA $550,000
  • Willards Lions Club $50,000
  • Salisbury Zoo Animal Park $360,000

Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at gbassett@newszap.com

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