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$1.6 million earmarked for the BSO among Gov. Hogan’s proposed budget cuts due to coronavirus crisis

Slightly more than $1.6 million earmarked for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is on the chopping block as Maryland grapples with the devastating economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Slightly more than $1.6 million earmarked for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is on the chopping block as Maryland grapples with the devastating economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun)

As Maryland grapples with the devastating economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, slightly more than $1.6 million of state funds earmarked for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra — a pot of money that until recently had seemed like a done deal — is on the chopping block.

When Republican Gov. Larry Hogan returns Wednesday to preside over the state Board of Public Works, the panel will consider $672 million in budget cuts he proposed that affect Maryland life, from schools to criminal prosecutions to the environment.

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Among the proposed cuts is $1,634,318 in extra state funding for the BSO, which is attempting to turn itself around from the dire financial straits in which it found itself in 2019. The money would be in addition to the BSO’s annual grant from the state, which was $1.65 million for the fiscal year that ended Tuesday.

“Despite the pandemic, the BSO is committed to continuing ... the organizational transformation that is underway,” said Peter Kjome, the orchestra’s president and CEO. “As we pursue a compelling and achievable vision for the future, the support of the state is vital.”

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As recently as last summer, the BSO was in such bad financial shape that it abruptly canceled its summer season and locked the musicians out of Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, saying it lacked the money to meet payroll. An audit released in July concluded that the organization might not have enough money to remain in business for another year.

The Maryland General Assembly stepped up to help, authorizing a two-year allocation of $3.2 million in emergency funds in 2019. When Hogan withheld the first year’s allocation, it precipitated a crisis within the BSO.

But the second payment seemed a surer bet. It became law months before Hogan proposed his 2020-21 budget, so the governor lost the authority to decide whether to release those funds. Now, it looks as though the symphony may not receive the second payment, either..

Hogan wants to invoke language in state budget and procurement law permitting the three-member Board of Public Works to reduce any appropriation “that the governor considers unnecessary” by up to 25%. Hogan is chairman of the board, which also includes two Democrats: State Comptroller Peter Franchot and State Treasurer Nancy Kopp, who both voiced opposition to some of the proposed cuts Tuesday.

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But the statute appears vague as to what it means by “an appropriation.” Is that a reference to money given to an individual organization, such as the BSO? In that case, the statute would allow the board to vote to withhold just $400,000 of that $1.6 million, or 25%.

Or does “appropriation” refer to the budget for an entire agency, such as the state Department of Commerce, under which the BSO is grouped along with the Maryland State Arts Council, the Department of Tourism and others? If so, the governor could cut some programs more and others less, as long as Commerce’s budget didn’t drop by more than 25%.

That’s how Hogan appears to interpret the statute, since he’s proposing to eliminate the full $1.6 million set aside for the BSO.

“I hope the Governor reconsiders,” said Brian Prechtl, chairman of the BSO Players Committee, which represents the musicians.

The governor’s communications director, Michael Ricci, did not respond to a request for comment.

If the $1.6 million is withheld, the impact is not likely to be felt immediately by the organization.

Both Kjome and Prechtl described contract negotiations, which are ongoing, as proceeding slowly but steadily. Both expect to have a new collective bargaining agreement before the existing contract expires Sept. 7.

And while the BSO has not yet announced its next season, that is a consequence of COVID-19 and state-mandated restrictions on live performances and not because of a lack of funds. The BSO plans to announce more details regarding the 2020-21 performing season in a few weeks, Kjome said.

In fact, the BSO remains on track to balance its budget for the symphony’s current fiscal year ending Aug. 31.

“The support of our community will continue to be vital,” Kjome said. “While we are optimistic about a positive result for the current fiscal year, we need to continue our efforts to maintain our financial strength as we look ahead to next season.”

What concerns symphony leaders and musicians more is that losing that second $1.6 million could make it difficult for the BSO to proceed with the rebuilding they say is vital to the orchestra’s long-term financial health.

“There are important conversations ahead,” Kjome said. “We appreciate that this is an unprecedented crisis. At the same time, the support of our state’s elected leaders will be crucial to preserving our cultural assets.”

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