Sen. Van Hollen dis­cusses fed­eral bud­get, lo­cal im­pact

Talks ed­u­ca­tion, trans­porta­tion, de­fense with county of­fi­cials

Maryland Independent - - Front Page - By MICHAEL SYKES II msykes@somd­news.com

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.

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