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Baltimore Symphony Musicians perform during a free concert by the Musicians of the Baltimore Symphony, at New Shiloh Baptist Church Sat., Sept. 14, 2019.
Baltimore Symphony Musicians perform during a free concert by the Musicians of the Baltimore Symphony, at New Shiloh Baptist Church Sat., Sept. 14, 2019. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Gov. Larry Hogan has asked the Maryland General Assembly to rescind a promised $1.6 million for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra — the second time in two years the governor has attempted to block emergency bridge funding aimed at stabilizing Maryland’s largest cultural institution.

The request was included as part of Hogan’s proposed 2020-2021 budget. It would require repealing part of a law adopted last spring by legislators to tide the cash-strapped symphony over until it could implement a fiscally responsible, long-term business plan.

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Even if the $1.6 million is restored, a symphony official said, the orchestra expects to request additional state aid over the next few years while the BSO works to become self-sustaining.

Michael Ricci, the governor’s spokesman, wrote in an email Wednesday that the BSO has received $9.5 million in grants from the state since Hogan took office in 2015. In addition, Hogan’s proposed budget for next year includes an increase of $1.5 million for the Maryland State Arts Council, which, Ricci wrote, “traditionally provides its largest grant to the BSO.”

But lawmakers said Hogan lacks the authority to withhold next year’s installment from the symphony, which has been attempting to extricate itself from a financial hole after incurring $16 million in deficits during the past decade.

On May 25, the General Assembly passed a bill allocating $3.2 million to the BSO over the next two fiscal years. But because the bill became law months after Hogan had proposed his 2019-2020 budget, the governor had the final say about whether the first year’s installment would be released, according to Ed Kasemeyer, a former state senator who is chairman of a state work group tasked with examining the symphony’s finances.

Hogan’s refusal to disburse the first $1.6 million allocation precipitated a crisis within the organization. Saying the orchestra lacked the money to make payroll, the BSO’s board of trustees voted in June to lock the musicians out of Meyerhoff Symphony Hall for 12 weeks. The following month, an audit concluded that the symphony might lack the financial resources to remain in business for another year.

Now, nearly eight months have elapsed since the bill became law. The BSO negotiated a new contract with its musicians and announced Tuesday that it has secured $7.25 million in donations from local philanthropists that will allow it to pay its outstanding bills and to achieve a balanced budget for the first time in several years.

Even though Hogan has cut the second-year allocation of $1.6 million from his proposed 2020-2021 budget, the General Assembly has the authority to restore these still needed funds, Kasemeyer said.

Alexandra M. Hughes, chief of staff to House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, indicated that lawmakers might do just that.

“Obviously the Speaker was disappointed to learn that on the heels of a positive announcement from the BSO about a path forward that the governor has decided to cut funding to a statewide institution,” Hughes said. “The House will look seriously at restoring that cut.”

Del. Maggie McIntosh, chairwoman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, also opposes repealing the law, she said in a text message to The Sun.

Though details of the work group’s recommendations still are being finalized, a long-term proposal aimed at restoring the BSO to financial solvency is expected to be presented to the General Assembly and to the governor next month.

“Our job is to show the legislature where we’ve come from and where we want to go,” Kasemeyer said. “We have to instill confidence that we have a plan that can work so that legislators will reject the governor’s request and keep the money in the budget for next year.”

Even if the General Assembly restores the second-year distribution of $1.6 million, Barry Rosen, chairman of the BSO’s board of trustees, said that it will take time for some initiatives in the multi-year plan to produce results. He hopes to persuade Hogan and legislators to authorize bridge funding for the BSO through 2025.

“We are developing an exciting, well-researched, balanced-budget plan,” Rosen said, “but we will need everyone’s help to succeed. We will need our musicians’ help and our audience’s help and our governor’s help if we are to pull this off.”

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Ricci didn’t respond to Rosen’s comments other than to say: “We look forward to working with them [the BSO and the work group] in the months ahead.”

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