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Legislature to consider ‘Wow’ package to assist Baltimore City

ANNAPOLIS — Leaders in the General Assembly say they plan to pass a package of bills meant to spark a renaissance in Baltimore nearly one year after the biggest city in Maryland drew national attention for riots that followed the police-involved death of Freddie Gray.

The proposal is expected to include millions for demolishing vacant housing and revitalizing neighborhoods, open space, recreation centers and libraries and incentives to entice businesses to locate in areas around anchor universities in the city. Most of those bills are currently working their way through the House of Delegates.

“You’re going to go, ‘Wow,'” Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said Wednesday during a debate on an amended version of Gov. Larry Hogan’s second budget.

Within that budget was an amendment that made $10 million of funding for schools in Baltimore City contingent  upon the submission of a report that legislative leaders said the school system had been delinquent in providing.

The package of nine separate bills represents nearly $300 million in spending over five years including:

  • $5 million to establish a program for middle school students that would fully pay for college.
  • $18 million a year for five years for a ramped-up plan to demolish abandoned vacant homes and revitalize neighborhoods similar to a plan announced earlier by Gov. Larry Hogan.
  • Nearly $17 million for city parks.
  • Funding to expand service at the Enoch Pratt Free Library system to 12 hours per day and seven days per week.
  • After-school programming.
  • An adult education program that would allow students to work toward a high school diploma rather than an equivalency certification.
  • Incentives for businesses to locate around anchor universities including the Johns Hopkins, Morgan State, and University of Maryland, Baltimore.

“We’ve put a lot of time in this summer, particularly with the incidents there, to try and come up with a plan with bring Baltimore into a renaissance if you will,” House Speaker Michael E. Busch. “How the state could be a partner with Baltimore City. Obviously, Baltimore City has got to take the lead on a lot of issues but we certainly can be a partner in a lot of ways.”

Busch said legislators have “worked back and forth with the city, with the governor’s office and everything else and came up with the package where for five years we make an $18 million a year commitment to demolish and reconstruction in those (blighted) communities.”

Busch said the legislature wants to mandate the spending over five years to ensure stability.

The city will also have to have some skin in the game. Busch said that some of the provisions will require the city to provide some funding in order to receive the state money.

Douglass Mayer, a Hogan spokesman, said the governor is interested in looking at the finalized package.

“There are a lot of things in the package that the governor thinks are good ideas,” Mayer said.

One potential sticking point could be mandated spending. Mayer, however, would not immediately rule in or out support from Hogan on any bill that required spending over a five-year period. Hogan has previously chastised legislators for mandated spending requirements and for  legislation he said would impose $3.7 billion in new required spending. Some of those bills were sponsored by Republicans.

“Every bill is evaluated on its own merits,” Mayer said.

Some legislators aren’t quite sure of the “wow” factor of the package and express concern about requiring the cash-strapped city to pony up more money for schools and other projects in order to get state funding.

Sen. Joan Carter Conway, D-Baltimore City and chair of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, complained that the Senate should not withhold the money, citing a loss of $24 million in funding proposed for fiscal 2017 due to decreases in school enrollment and increases in wealth calculations. Some lawmakers call it “phantom wealth” because it is based on the full value of properties that benefit from tax credits –m essentially preventing the city from collecting the full amount of property taxes. That’s heaped on top of a loss of funding related to Gov. Larry Hogan’s decision to fund half of an optional supplemental education formula.

“We’re still not whole,” Conway said. “We’re not whole in Baltimore City.”

“I’m just going to wait to say ‘wow’ when I see the package that the good president is talking about,” Conway said.