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House Minority Leader Nicholaus Kipke, R-Anne Arundel County, and Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga, R-Baltimore and Harford counties. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

Republicans, Franchot take aim at State Center project

Republicans in the House of Delegates say they want a public hearing on the $1.5 billion plan to redevelop the State Center in Baltimore City.

House Minority Leader Nicholaus Kipke, R-Anne Arundel County, and Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga, R-Baltimore and Harford counties, say they want the House Appropriations Committee to hold hearings on the project and address concerns raised in an analysis by the Department of Legislative Services.

“Maryland’s budget outlook is already grim,” the Republican leaders wrote in the letter to House Speaker Michael E. Busch. “Based on the information from DLS, the State Center project appears to be an albatross around the taxpayers’ neck. This is a burden that they – quite literally – cannot afford. Fortunately, in their analysis DLS also laid out options that may allow us to free Maryland’s taxpayers from the ever-growing burden of this State Center Project.”

The statement from Republicans comes at the same time that Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot said in an interview that the project is unaffordable and should be scrapped, at least for now.

“So much debt has been taken out over the last five or six years since this project looked affordable and now it no longer is,” said Franchot, a Democrat and a member of the Board of Public Works, along with Gov. Martin J. O’Malley and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp. The board is scheduled to take up the final approvals for the project on Dec. 17. O’Malley and Kopp have not indicated their views on the project.

In their letter, Kipke and Szeliga call on Busch to allow the House Appropriations Committee to participate in a Senate hearing scheduled for Tuesday.

The Senate Budget and Taxation Committee is scheduled to hold a similar hearing Tuesday afternoon. Typically, the House Appropriations Committee would participate in that hearing, but Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, chair of the Senate Committee, said a large amount of turnover in the House committee made a joint meeting more challenging.

Kasemeyer, in a letter to O’Malley and the Board of Public Works, asked for the project to be removed from the Dec. 17 board agenda citing fiscal concerns raised by a review of the project conducted by legislative budget analysts.

“The costs have had to go up in four or five years,” Kasemeyer said in an interview last week. “What’s the increase to us? We want to see if this project is something that is within the state’s means and if it still makes sense for us, is it a good deal for us.”

Plans to redevelop the 28-acre westside property bordering Preston Street, home to 1 million square feet of office space, the Fifth Regiment Armory and about 3,500 state employees, date back to 2005. The redevelopment appeared to get back on track after the Court of Appeals ruled that opponents of the project, who included businesses and property owners funded by attorney Peter G. Angelos, waited too long to challenge the procurement process in court. That decision vacated a ruling by a trial judge that the project had not been competitively bid.

The legislative analysts’ review disclosed last week raised questions about the financial viability of the project, concerns about increased costs of the project above the original $1.5 billion price tag and worries that the debt associated with the project would cause the state to exceed its statutory limit on borrowing.

“As the O’Malley-Brown administration begins their exit from Annapolis, we question the appropriateness of their efforts to push through this bad deal for Maryland’s taxpayers in the eleventh hour of their term,” Szeliga said in a statement. “We would hope that in light of voters’ loud and clear message that state spending is out of control, they would not add to their legacy as irresponsible stewards of taxpayer dollars.”