By LIZ FARMER and TAYA FLORES, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS - By 10 a.m. Wednesday, the ornate reception room outside the governor's office on the second floor of the State House was jammed full. Spilling out into a marble hallway were the sort of people not normally accustomed to being kept waiting.
But there they stood - county executives, commissioners, councilmen, superintendents of schools, accompanied by their state delegates and senators - all waiting to speak their piece at what has come to be known, without affection, as the annual begathon before the state Board of Public Works (BPW).
"It's a bit humiliating," said Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, D-Howard, the Senate majority leader, as he stood leaning up against a wall passing the time with Sen. Katherine A. Klausmeir, D-Baltimore County, in the over-crowded and noisy hallway.
The meeting is called the begathon because it is the yearly event at which local public school and county officials troop before the governor, the comptroller and the state treasurer in endless profusion to plead their case for money to build new public schools or fix the conditions of old ones.
While county officials say that appearing before the board is a valuable experience for them, there are some lawmakers who say that the whole process has become is a waste of time.
"It takes a lot of time, I think it is something that should be totally eliminated," said Sen. Larry E. Haines, R-Carroll, who had just addressed Gov. Martin O'Malley and the two other members of the board, Comptroller Peter Franchot and State Treasurer Nancy Kopp.
During the Senate session earlier, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, D-Calvert and Prince George's, termed the whole event "inappropriate" and called for an end to the ordeal.
"These are elected officials," Miller said later. "This is [former Comptroller] William Donald Schaefer's way of embarrassing people that he wanted to embarrass, that he wanted to force to come before him and beg and plead and get him to do what he should be doing anyway without even asking."
In fact, begathon veterans say, this year's edition was much better organized and lacked the mean-spirited zeal with which the prickly Schaefer would try to embarrass and often humiliate local officials.
"Many of us have been on the other side of the table for this," O'Malley, presiding over his first begathon and first Board of Public Works meeting, said soothingly to the gathered officials.
The new governor seemed to go out of his way to relate to all the delegations that appeared before the board, but he perked up noticeably when a member of the Dorchester County delegation resorted to good natured flattery by complimenting O'Malley for his guitar playing at last week's Inaugural Ball.
"Well thank you very much, and may I compliment you, sir, on your excellent taste in music," O'Malley responded.
O'Malley and Franchot, both newly elected, were attending their first board meeting. Still new to the process, Franchot said that while he had heard that the day has been chaotic in the past, he found today's presentation to be both respectful and useful.
"I think for all three of us, it's a little burdensome to have to sit the whole day, but I think there's some very good information," he said before dashing off to get a sandwich during a late lunch break.
But begathon veteran Kopp, a board member since 2002, was less generous. She said she agreed with Miller's assessment that the process could be more streamlined or eliminated altogether, and that the "circus-like, begathon atmosphere" was not necessary.
Wednesday's version droned on well into the late afternoon.
The official business of the day was the question of how to divide up the $400 million O'Malley has pledged to spend on school construction. For hour upon hour, the three officials listened to requests for state help in paying for things such as cost-saving energy upgrades, building construction and transportation
The largest requests came from Prince George's County, Montgomery County, and Baltimore.
Baltimore asked for an additional $145 million to renovate some schools and expand others. Along with county officials, the city's new mayor, Sheila Dixon made a plea for more construction funds. To back up the claim of how important these funds are the city brought a crowd of parents, teachers and students wearing bright orange tee-shirts with the writing, "Building for our children's future."
When a voice from the crowd asked, "Is there anyone in this room that thinks Baltimore City deserves this money?" The crowd went wild with yells and applause.
Prince George's County requested $134 million to eliminate trailers, for school renovation, special education and to teach students who speak English as their second language.
Montgomery County asked for $67 million to get rid of the trailers that house 14,000 students who have to study in mobile classrooms because of overcrowding in the schools. Counties such as Queen Anne's, Somerset, and St. Mary's County all asked for millions to help with the construction of energy efficient buildings. Somerset asked for $1.87 million for a new building that has geothermal heat and uses solar heating. Queen Anne's County wanted funds to pay for its third geothermal building.