Sen. Van Hollen discusses federal budget, local impact
Talks education, transportation, defense with county officials
No matter who is in office, local jurisdictions always have to shape and adjust their needs from year to year as the federal budget changes and grant money shifts around.
But this particular year with many wholesale cuts and changes coming from the federal level per request of President Donald Trump (R) and his administration, Charles County is trying to be as prepared as possible.
To help them shape their priorities, Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) paid a visit to the board of commissioners, members of its staff and different officials from local jurisdictions in the county to discuss what the current state of affairs are on Capitol Hill.
“What I really hope we can do is just have a conversation,” Van Hollen said.
“We have lots of challenges going forward.”
Education was a big talking point for Van Hollen throughout the meeting. Kimberly Hill, the superintendent of Charles County Public Schools, said she is “very concerned” about cuts for K-12 funding at the federal level and the potential promotion of private education on the federal level.
Hill said the country was founded on everyone having an equal opportunity in education and having the best education possible available in a public arena. With new Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ advocation for private education, Hill said losing those values has become a real concern in Charles County.
Trump is proposing $54 billion in increased defense spending, Hill said, and that could mean signifiant cuts to other places like education.
“Most of that is going to come out of non-discretionar y funding and that’s where we sit,” Hill said.
The county also has one of the fastest growing special education populations, she said, and those children cost more to educate. Some Medicaid funding is used to fund special education programs, she said, but that could be cut as well.
Van Hollen said, Hill is “right to be worried.” It is not clear where cuts may fall, he said, but there was a 17 percent cut to education proposed.
“It’s hard to do that without negatively impacting the programs you’re talking about,” he said.
Brad Gottfried, the president of the College of Southern Maryland, said he had concerns over predatory lending and for-profit institutions making a prominent return.
There are signals that they will be a re-emerging entity in higher education, he said, which makes it easy for students to spend thousands of dollars on degrees that may not lead to exactly what they think it will.
“The system improved under the last administration but the worry is that more students are going to get deeper in debt if the process is loosened,” Gottfried said. “I’m worried about our students.”
Van Hollen said, “unfortunately” the new administration is taking the country in the wrong direction when it comes to school choice and affordability. There have been efforts to create programs to help student debt repayment, he said, but many of those have uncertain futures under the new administration.
Changing the subject, Jason Groth, the chief of Resource and Infrastructure Management in Charles County, asked for federal assistance in moving forward on the Southern Maryland Rapid Transit line that would provide light rail transportation from White Plains into Prince George’s County at the Branch Avenue metro station.
The county has a “major” congestion issue along U.S. 301 and Route 210, both of which can connect county resident to the District of Columbia where many of them work. The county is looking to get the project into a “formal” project planning stage, Groth said, which would help move it forward.
“What we’re looking for is anything the federal government could do to get this project off the ground,” Groth said.
Van Hollen said the initiative would be something he is happy to help the county work on, but the incoming budget from the Trump administration, once again, could provide impediments. The “New Start” program from the Federal Transportation Administration, which has been used to fund “Smart Growth” project initiatives in the past, is likely to be cut by this administration, he said.
This project, as well as the Purple Line in Prince George’s County and the Red Line in Baltimore City, could all be in jeopardy, Van Hollen said.
“We’ve got to preserve the program in order to put you in line” Van Hollen said.
But Maryland State Del. C.T. Wilson (D-Charles) asked Van Hollen how seriously the project would be considered. The county is currently trying to figure out how it will develop itself in the future, he said, and that is a big question that needs to be answered before everything else is figured out.
“In competing with Prince George’s County, the Purple Line, what Baltimore is going to want, what are the chances in my lifetime of getting this done?” Wilson said. “At some point, I’m not saying we abandon the idea, but we can’t build around a fantasy. We might need to think in alternative directions.”
As far as the rest of the federal budget goes, Wilson said everything may not be in jeopardy. What the county has to focus on, he said, is building up Indian Head and protecting its naval base.
It may not be the best thing for other programs, he said, but if the administration wants to increase defense spending they can use that to beef up the town and protect its base from any realignment in the future.
And the county can develop roads and create bypasses in the area that will connect it to Washington where it will be just a “15-minute” shot into the city, he said.
“These businesses will have no choice but to go down to Indian Head,” Wilson said.
Van Hollen said he cannot handicap the odds of how likely it is that the SMRT rail will be developed, but the Purple Line and Red Line are both priorities. There is also an effort to put together a project on I-270 in Montgomery County, he said, but it is really up to the state how those projects are prioritized.
No matter how it works out, Van Hollen said, he wants to make sure that Maryland is in good shape. There has been bipartisan support, he said, on many of the initiatives they discussed so there is hope some programs will not be cut.