State lawmakers approve hundreds of millions in aid for Baltimore, await Hogan's possible veto

Erin Cox
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Lawmakers approved hundreds of millions in aid for Baltimore. Will Gov. Hogan veto it?

The General Assembly agreed Thursday to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to spark a renaissance in Baltimore.

Mentorship programs would be created for children from low-income families who hope to attend college, after-school programs would be expanded, blocks of vacant housing would be demolished, rundown areas would be redeveloped and six city parks would be improved under bills guided through the legislature by leading Democrats.

The swift passage Thursday will put the package before Gov. Larry Hogan as soon as today, forcing the Republican governor to decide by next week whether to veto policies he backs because they are attached to spending mandates he does not support.

Other bills to help Baltimore that are pending but expected to pass would extend library hours in low-income neighborhoods, create incentives for universities to set up shop in blighted areas and study how to form an adult high school where dropouts could earn a diploma.

"The General Assembly has rallied to support the needs of Baltimore city, the mother city of Maryland," House Speaker Michael E. Busch said Thursday. "This will catapult [Baltimore] into the national spotlight, to show that when proper investments are taken ... cities can once again strive for a renaissance."

Republicans in the state Senate and the House of Delegates spoke in favor of many of the programs but against requirements for automatic spending that take away the governor's discretion.

"The title is great, the objective is laudable, but the mandates are unacceptable," Sen. Robert G. Cassilly, a Harford County Republican, said during debate this week. "It's rough for us as Republicans not to be able to vote for these policies ... [but] to just put government on autopilot is a mistake."

Hogan said he had not decided whether to veto the bills on budget principles.

"We'll have to give that every consideration once they send us something," Hogan said.

With 11 days left before the legislature adjourns, Democrats have fast-tracked at least a dozen bills they intend to give Hogan Friday, starting the clock on the week he has to sign or veto them. If he does neither, they will become law without his signature.

The timeline gives the Democratic-controlled General Assembly the ability to override any veto immediately, ending the annual 90-day session with a similar show of political force to what they did at its outset, when they overrode Hogan vetoes that had carried over from last year's session.

In addition to the five Baltimore measures, the House and Senate plan to jointly present the governor Friday with a series of bills they deem likely to provoke his veto.

The bills would strip the governor's authority to appoint members of Baltimore's liquor board; more closely link the campuses of the University of Maryland, College Park and the University of Maryland, Baltimore; require the state to pay for a new hospital in Prince George's County; and require the governor to give three days of public notice if he wants to trim the budget while the legislature is not in session.

More than a week of unrest in Baltimore last April, sparked by the death of Freddie Gray, who suffered spinal injuries in police custody, highlighted urban poverty and a sense of desperation in the city. The General Assembly had adjourned for the year before riots erupted. Lawmakers responded this year with attempts to address the root causes of unrest.

The Baltimore aid package was scaled back slightly from the about $300 million originally proposed, though a new cost estimate was unavailable Thursday night.

The bills include:

•Millions of dollars in grants for Baltimore-area neighborhood groups to redevelop communities.

•Money for a construction-management program at Towson University to train people who could work in the city.

•A ramped-up program to demolish vacant housing.

•Money to create after-school and summer programs.

•Funding for projects at Herring Run, Clifton, Druid Hill, James Mosher and Patterson parks in Baltimore.

•Money to pay 80 percent of the cost to keep libraries in low-income neighborhoods open longer.

•A mentorship program to help eighth-grade students get full scholarships to Maryland universities.

To help sell the concepts to Republicans, Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, gave a presentation to the GOP caucus this week.

On a few occasions, some of the Senate's 14 Republicans sided with the Democrats. But with each bill, they tried unsuccessfully to make funding the programs subject to the governor's annual review.

Ferguson argued that although the legislation promised money well into the future, the bills had "sufficient, if not excessive checks" on tracking how the money is spent and whether the programs are effective.

Debating funding every year, he said, would undermine the broader goal of lifting the city out of poverty.

"You can't turn around a neighborhood overnight," he said. "The plan is crucial."

ecox@baltsun.com

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