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Fiscal Policy Richard Falknor on 27 Mar 2008 09:42 pm

Is the Maryland capital budget becoming the pork express?

In this season of tax hikes and economic downturn, we all want to know why Maryland lawmakers are bankrolling projects with taxpayer money like the sample we put together below.

But first some background.

Transparency is not just for the executive branch – – – but also for the legislature, as we had written earlier.

We had suggested that a good transparency start in the Maryland General Assembly would be sunshine in time before a local-bond-bill package is enacted. (That package is one part of the much larger capital budget.)

We suggested that taxpayers insist that the proposed final legislative-project bond package (looking like this one from last year but also linked to relevant bond-bill fact sheets like this one) coming before the General Assembly should be posted timely on the internet. In this way, not only legislators but the voters and the media could consider this “legislative projects” package before final action by the General Assembly.

And we would now also suggest posting the proposed final “Miscellaneous Grant Programs.” When you see the size of those local grants below, you will understand why.

But it doesn’t look as if any bond-bill-transparency reforms are going to happen very soon. And the adjournment date of the General Assembly is a fast-approaching April 7.

But here is what is happening. The Maryland Senate on March 20 unanimously approved their version (SB 150) of the current Maryland capital budget. This senate version authorizes “the creation of a State Debt in the amount of $886,070,000.”

Clearly the Senate version is incomplete in its detail – – – for the House will have to spell out how it will parcel out $12,500,000 of taxpayer money in what are called “Local House Initiatives.” Perhaps that chamber will spend some more money in ways their leadership finds really creative.

Many of the local projects are arguably worthy endeavors – – – but for private donors, or for private investors. A few may be defensible for public funding. But it is a stretch to burden Maryland taxpayers with debts for undertakings far removed from the core roles of state and local government.

Here is just our sample of many projects now in the Senate version. They range from quite small to respectably large. Even the small grants have a moral: we know of high-performing but struggling public charter schools who could put $20,000 state grants to more productive use than Bowie swimming clubs. (Greater detail on each of the grants in our sample may be found on the SB150 page cited.)

Advancing the presence of questionable projects, however, even more than their size itself leads the plain citizen to wonder whether the Maryland political class has any respect at all for the ordinary taxpayer.

Belair Bath and Tennis Club Capital Improvements.
$20,000 (Prince George’s County)p.6.

Belair Swim and Racquet Club Repair. $20,000.
(Prince George’s County) p.6.

Pointer Ridge Swim and Racquet Club. $20,000 (Prince George’s County)p.7.

Whitehall Pool and Tennis Capital Improvements.
$20,000 (Prince George’s County)p.7.

East Baltimore Biotechnology Park. Provide a grant to the Mayor and City Council of the City of Baltimore for property acquisition, demolition, and site improvements in the East Baltimore Biotechnology Park area $5,000,000 (Baltimore City) p.15.

Maryland Independent College and University Association – Mount St. Mary’s University – Performing Arts Academic Center. $1,250,000 (Frederick County)p.17.

Live Entertainment Venue Nation. Provide a grant to the County Executive and County Council of Montgomery County to assist in the design, construction, and capital equipping of a facility for a Live Entertainment Venue Nation in Silver Spring $2,000,000 (Montgomery County) p.16.

Park Heights Revitalization Project. Provide a grant to the Mayor and City Council of the City of Baltimore for the acquisition of the Park Lane Shopping Center or other property in the Park Heights Revitalization area …. $3,000,000(Baltimore City)p.18.

West Side Revitalization Project. Provide a grant to the Mayor and City Council of the City of Baltimore for property acquisition, demolition, and site improvements in the WestSide Revitalization Project . . . $5,000,000 (Baltimore City)p.19.

Southern Maryland Stadium. $1,333,000 (Charles County)p.19.

Lyric Opera House. $300,000 located in Baltimore City p.20.

Heritage Trail and Saint Helena Park.$175,000 (Baltimore County) p.26.

Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre.$50,000(Anne Arundel County) p.21.

Hammond–Harwood House. $100,000(Anne Arundel County) p.22.

Old Caroline High School . . . .for use as a small business incubator and culinary institute, located in Denton $50,000(Caroline County)p.27.

Robinson Nature Center . . .located in Columbia $250,000(Howard County)p.30.

Maryland Youth Ballet.$100,000(Montgomery County)p.32.

Multicultural Use Center. Provide a grant equal to the lesser of (i) $150,000 or (ii) the amount of the matching fund provided, to the Board of Directors of the Latin American Youth Center, Inc. located in Riverdale (Prince George’s County) p.35.

Museum of Fine Arts.$75,000(Washington County)p.37.

Springfield Barn. $100,000(Washington County) p.37.

Rackliffe House. $105,000(Worcester County) p.38.

Click here to scroll through SB 150 to see for yourself. “Miscellaneous Grant Programs” begin on page 15 of the bill; “Local Senate Initiatives” go from page 19 to page 38.

And we have not even addressed the largest items in the capital budget. How much money has the “prevailing wage” requirement added to construction costs? (A great deal, as former comptroller Schaefer declared in February of 2000: “There is also information reflecting that prevailing wage laws may add as much as 20% to 30%.”) Why haven’t public-private partnerships been widely used in Maryland public-school construction? How many large capital-budget items are really priorities for using taxpayer money today?

Special-interest roadblocks to prudent capital spending cannot be cleared away instantly in Maryland, but a robust Senate debate on this budget in hard fiscal times can keep us moving toward a solution.

In view of the spirited back-and-forth debate on the Maryland operating budget, we are puzzled that the last three capital budgets have been approved virtually unanimously.

Sherlock Holmes pointed in Silver Blaze to the watchdog that didn’t bark. In this case, we are talking about lawmakers who are not taking a hard look at this kind of spending.

Find a particular project questionable? Ask your state senator in the coming few days why it is in the bill, whether it is justifiable even in ordinary times, and why it is put forward in times like these.

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