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Senate could OK capital budget by Thursday

ANNAPOLIS — The Senate could approve a capital spending plan as early as Thursday, including money that is allocated for a proposed expansion of the Baltimore Convention Center and infrastructure improvements at the National Aquarium.

The Senate gave its preliminary approval on Wednesday to a fiscal 2013 plan cobbled together by the Budget and Taxation Committee’s Capital Budget Subcommittee, which made 65 amendments to the proposal sent to the legislature by Gov. Martin O’Malley.

The plan authorizes $1.1 billion in new borrowing to help fund capital projects. No amendments to SB 151 were offered during the subcommittee’s report to the full Senate, where a vote is slated for Thursday morning.

The House of Delegates still needs to pass its own plan. The Appropriations Committee’s Capital Budget Subcommittee is making its decisions Thursday and is slated to report to the full House panel Friday.

That means the House plan could be debated on the chamber floor early next week. Once passed in both chambers, a conference committee would have to be formed to work out differences between the two proposals.

O’Malley earmarked $2.5 million in his capital budget to pay for the preliminary planning and design of a proposed $900 million Baltimore Convention Center expansion. The state and city are expected to kick in $400 million, with the last $500 million being covered by private sources, led by developer Willard Hackerman.

The Department of Legislative Services recommended the elimination of the $2.5 million grant, but Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, D-Baltimore City, muscled the money back into the Senate subcommittee’s plan by adding language that would restrict the funds until the state Department of Budget and Management, Baltimore City and the project’s developer enter into a memorandum of understanding.

Donald C. Fry, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee, said he hoped the House would keep money in its plan, too, but also remove the restriction imposed in the Senate version. The GBC is leading the push for the new arena and expanded convention center.

“I’m hopeful that they will also approve the $2.5 million, with maybe different language,” Fry said. “I’m hopeful the House will keep the money in. I’m hopeful that the language that they finally agree to is going to allow us access to the money to be able to do the things we need to do to keep this project moving forward.”

The memorandum of understanding in the Senate plan would include preliminary agreement on the management and ownership structure of the convention center project — which includes a new hotel and arena — and how much money each party intends to spend on the project. The memorandum would then be subject to review within 45 days by the legislature’s budget committees.

Fry said last week that the $2.5 million was needed to get answers to the Senate subcommittee’s questions.

National Aquarium officials were not immediately available to discuss a grant that would help the aquarium with infrastructure improvements. The grant would match, up to $2 million, the amount of money spent by the aquarium on improvements.