Parks funding

At Sandy Point State Park, Gov. Martin O'Malley announces a proposed investment of $22 million for improvements in state parks and public lands. In background is Lt. Col. Christopher C. Bushman, Deputy Superintendent of the Maryland Park Service. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun / January 13, 2012)

The study prompted O'Malley to increase spending to about $20 million early in his first term, but that number fell to less than $6 million in the 2010-2012 budget years after the economy went into a tailspin.

Casey, who also serves as chairman of the state Parks Advisory Commission, said that in some recent years Maryland could do little more than put temporary patches on leaking roofs in park buildings. Over time, he said, it cost more to do the temporary fixes than a long-term repair.

He said renovation of the Assateague bathhouses, at a cost of $2.1 million, is an example of a project that is overdue.

"They look shabby," Casey said. "You're going to see urinals and/or commodes that are sometimes broken. You're going to see water leaks," he said. "They were nasty enough for us to get complaints from people who were visiting the parks."

The North Point fishing pier, open but in severe disrepair for almost a decade, will be replaced with a handicapped-accessible structure for $1.9 million, Saunders Evans said.

Other money would go to a variety of projects around the state — from $1.9 million for the Western Maryland Rail Trail to $2.7 million toward the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park in Dorchester County. Saunders Evans said most of the projects slated for funding are "shovel-ready."

Of the $23 million, $14 million would come from a pot of $150 million in increased borrowing capacity approved by state spending authorities last month.

The additional $150 million — which comes on top of a previously planned $925 million — was approved by Maryland's Debt Affordability Committee over the dissent of Comptroller Peter Franchot, who said the state cannot afford the spending. A separate General Assembly panel that oversees spending signed off on the plan despite Republican objections.

Administration officials said the increased borrowing in next year's budget would not violate guidelines and would be offset by borrowing less in the future. Essentially, the money is a deduction from the 2018 budget year, in which previous plans to borrow $1.2 billion have been trimmed to $1.05 billion.

So far, O'Malley has announced his intention to allocate roughly $100 million of new borrowing to school construction, $15 million to rental housing development and $14 million to the state parks. Roughly $20 million in spending has yet to be announced but will likely involve environmental projects such as storm water and sewer improvements, according to O'Malley chief of staff Matt Gallagher.

O'Malley said the accelerated capital spending is made possible in part because Maryland holds a top credit ranking for its bonds.

"It is the right, the sound, the proper use of that AAA bond rating," he said. "We want to build things with these capital projects that will last."

In addition to the $14 million in new borrowing, the state is using $8.7 million that was already in the pipeline from real estate transfer tax collections.

Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of the environmental group 1000 Friends of Maryland, said the spending would have a "significant" impact on improving parks.

"While we're doing something for our parks, we're also employing people, so it's kind of a win-win situation," she said.