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House will not withhold UM funding over chicken farm lawsuit

The House of Delegates will not withhold any funding from the University of Maryland over an environmental lawsuit that a law school clinic is pursuing against Perdue and an Eastern Shore farmer.

The decision came as the delegates voted overwhelmingly to pass a $13 billion operating budget that trims about $125 million from Gov. Martin O'Malley's initial proposal. The Senate has passed a different version of the bill; the two bodies will meet next week to hammer out a final version.

Del. John L. Bohanan, a Southern Maryland Democrat, called the vote "historic." He said it was the first time the chamber had voted to spend less money on operating costs than in the previous year.

"This is the leanest budget that the body has ever voted on," he said.

Republicans criticized the plan, saying it still does not solve a structural imbalance between expected revenues and costs in the years to come — a theme members are likely to employ during the election campaign.

"We are abdicating our responsibility," said Minority Whip Christopher Shank, a Western Maryland Republican.

The decision to leave the law clinic funds intact was a reversal of an earlier vote by the House Appropriations Committee, which wanted to freeze $500,000 until the school turned over a list of clients and expenditures for the last two years.

"I was satisfied that the message had been heard," said Norman H. Conway, the Eastern Shore Democrat who chairs the panel. Conway and others on the Eastern Shore, felt that a group of overzealous law students had unfairly targeted a small farmer in a federal Clean Water Act lawsuit that also named poultry giant Perdue. The move stirred a wider debate about academic freedom, with supporters of the law school saying lawmakers were meddling in their curriculum.

The House also opted to borrow $100 million from an obscure income tax reserve fund. Half of the money would be distributed to local governments hit hard by repeated rounds of state cuts. The other half would be held in reserve in case tax revenues are lower than expected.

"This is to give a little bit back to the counties," said Del. Murray D. Levy, the Southern Maryland Democrat who proposed the change. "It is their money."

The governor had already borrowed from the fund to balance the current year's budget, and his proposal for next year included taking $350 million from the account. The money is in a fund that collects local income taxes; it is supposed to be repaid staring in 2014. The Senate wants to borrow an extra $389 million from the fund — but only if an expected second round of federal stimulus funds does not materialize.

Delegates also decided to kill a $11.5 million legislative scholarship program that has attracted criticism in the past because of lack of regulation. The House tried to curtail the program in 1996, but the Senate restored it.

And they erased from the state tax forms a check box asking Marylanders to contribute to public funding of political campaigns. The amendment had been offered by Minority Leader Anthony O'Donnell, a Southern Maryland Republican. Funds collected in that $5 million account had been earmarked for other uses, causing outrage.

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