A proposal to combine the University of Maryland, College Park and the University of Maryland, Baltimore cleared a hurdle Tuesday, but not before a state Senate committee dialed back legislation that could have merged the institutions under a single president.
The Budget and Taxation Committee approved an amended version of a bill that would combine the universities into one institution with separate campuses, but removed a provision that said the campuses could share a president should one of the current presidents leave — an issue that had emerged as a sticking point.
"It wasn't my idea, but I think it's a good compromise," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a leading proponent of a unified University of Maryland. The Calvert County Democrat said advocates on both sides want to make sure they have people well-positioned to look after their interests.
The revised bill also increases the price tag of the merger, threatening Republican support.
Under the original legislation, the state would spend $10 million a year on a new University of Maryland Center for Economic and Entrepreneurship Development at College Park, $3 million to help turn university research into profitable technology and $1 million to help businesses locate near the Baltimore campus.
The bill was changed Tuesday to increase funding for the next four years to two other state universities, Towson University and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. The $4 million in combined extra annual funding would be built into the universities' base budgets each year.
That extra cost caused some Republicans to have second thoughts about the bill, especially as Gov. Larry Hogan is waging a fight against spending mandates in state law. Three Republican lawmakers on the committee voted against the legislation despite supporting a combined University of Maryland.
"I support the concept here," but not the extra spending, said Sen. George Edwards, a Western Maryland Republican.
Victoria L. Gruber, Miller's chief of staff, told committee members that some of the spending could be offset by savings when the two institutions combine functions such as human resources and information technology.
Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat sponsoring the bill, was pleased to see the merger advance out of the committee on an 8-3 vote.
"I think this is such an exciting possibility for Baltimore's future," he said.
Supporters of combining the universities say doing so would boost the university system's national rankings, lead to increased grant funding and encourage the growth of new businesses in Baltimore. The institutions would be known collectively as the University of Maryland but would maintain two campuses.
Miller said the legislation will bring benefits to Baltimore in the form of a $5 million building and the shift to the city of 100 employees who now work in Prince George's County. He added that it's good for the entire state.
"It's designed to make us more competitive in terms of jobs and at the same time increase academic excellence," Miller said.
The Baltimore campus is home to professional schools for medicine, dentistry, nursing, pharmacy, law and social work, while College Park has a variety of undergraduate and graduate programs. The two institutions are already sharing some resources and programs through MPower, a collaboration agreement approved in 2012.
Crystal Brown, a University of Maryland, College Park spokeswoman, said the proposed new partnership would build "on the success of our collaboration with the University of Maryland, Baltimore and would boost the economy of the state of Maryland."
Removing the possibility of having one president calls into question whether the universities would be able to be ranked as one institution, which was one of the purposes of the legislation.
Geoffrey Heinzl, president of the student government at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, opposes combining the universities. He thought changes to the bill didn't make sense because it defeated the purpose of the original legislation.
"I don't see this as a viable path forward, in all honesty," said Heinzl, a doctoral candidate in pharmaceutical sciences. "I don't think this bill is in the best interest of the universities, and I think it shows."
Heinzl said the student government association has other concerns with the bill, too. They say it would create a behemoth institution within the state university system that would swallow attention and funding at a time when some other state campuses are struggling to attract and retain students. And they say it could jeopardize the work UMB has done with its surrounding community in recent years by shifting focus to College Park.
The revised bill is tentatively scheduled to move to the full Senate for consideration on Wednesday.
Baltimore Sun reporters Michael Dresser and Carrie Wells contributed to this article.