But Del. John L. Bohanan Jr., who is pushing for the funding change to help higher-education centers outside the University System, said he’s “a little bit puzzled” by the argument that his bill will be a breaking point for Hagerstown.
“My own center has gone through a lot of reductions,” Bohanan said, referring to a higher-education center in his southern Maryland district. “We’ve never closed the doors.”
He said local governments near that center help fund it, a collaboration that doesn’t happen in Hagerstown.
Bohanan’s bill would establish a new way of distributing money for regional higher-education centers, trumping a system that currently provides two USM centers with funding that is much more than six non-USM centers combined.
Under a formula he proposed, USMH’s state funding — projected at about $1.9 million this year — would drop by about $1 million in fiscal 2014.
USM’s Universities at Shady Grove in Montgomery County, which gets about $7.3 million this year, would lose about $1.2 million.
Funding for the six non-USM higher-education centers — which now get a combined $1.5 million — would rise about $2.9 million.
Brien J. Poffenberger, the president of the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce, said during Tuesday’s hearing that the state, not the city or county, defined USMH’s mission when it opened seven years ago: education and economic development.
“As it turns out, the center is hitting on all cylinders,” he said. “It’s working.”
But if USMH lost 53 percent of its budget as proposed, “we would have to make sure we can assist everyone with some sort of exit strategy from their plans,” said John L. Stoothoff, USMH’s interim executive director. “They got started in a program, and now they’d have to get out of it.”
Bohanan countered that higher-education centers with 57 percent of the students receive about 15 percent of the funding.
“This is just a matter of equity,” he said, adding that he’s not trying to force either USM center to close. “That’s all this is about.”
USMH has been through the budgetary wringer almost every year since 2008, when Bohanan tried the same approach through the budget instead of legislation.
Each time Bohanan or the Department of Legislative Services has recommended cuts that could directly or indirectly damage USMH, most or all of the money ultimately was restored.
This year, USMH supporters from the campus and the community had more of a chance to directly plead their case because of the Appropriations Committee hearing on Bohanan’s bill.
Christy Blake, the downtown business recruitment and retention manager for the city of Hagerstown, said USMH has helped spur 10 times as much investment in Hagerstown’s downtown core as there was in the previous decade.
Elaine Tiznado of Hagerstown, who is studying nursing at USMH through Towson University, said she wouldn’t be able to attend the next-closest nursing program, more than 60 miles away.
In a letter to the committee, Ed Lough of The Greater Hagerstown Committee wrote: “USMH has been a shining example of what vision, hard work, and community partnerships can do for a downtown and the community as a whole.”
Bohanan, who is on the Appropriations Committee, seemed to have the support of at least a few other committee members who spoke.
Del. Nancy R. Stocksdale, R-Carroll, agreed that the city and county should pitch in to keep USMH going, even though that might not have been the model a few years ago.
In difficult economic times, “we have to rethink almost everything that we’re doing,” she said.
Del. James E. Proctor Jr. D-Calvert/Prince George’s, said the Southern Maryland center was devised by the Appropriations Committee and its success led to the creation of the other centers, including USMH.
The committee is committed to keeping all of the centers going, he said.
“This is one idea ...,” Proctor said. “It’s probably not the only idea.”