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House Democrats to push legislation to help Baltimore

Leading Democrats in the House of Delegates plan to push at least a dozen legislative proposals aimed at addressing persistent problems highlighted by Baltimore's unrest last spring.

The package would invest tens of millions of dollars more to demolish vacant buildings, extend the school day in Baltimore's poorest neighborhoods and make it easier for public universities to hire city residents.

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The proposals would pump state cash into construction projects that would include new roofs at community centers and turf fields and lights at Druid Hill and Herring Run parks to support a state-backed recreation league.

"When something like what happened in Baltimore trains a national spotlight on the city, you say to yourself, 'We're better than that,'" said House Speaker Michael E. Busch. "There's a responsibility on everyone to come together."

The legislative session that begins next month offers the first opportunity for scores of state lawmakers to offer a response to the unrest that enveloped the city in April after the death of Freddie Gray, who suffered a severe spinal injury in police custody. Democrats hope to capitalize on a new political will to help Maryland's largest city, though experts question whether the rest of the state will agree.

The package developed by Busch, floated among leadership for commentary and obtained by The Baltimore Sun, would cost "tens of millions of dollars," he said.

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan has pitched vague plans to invest more in demolition and jobs programs. A spokesman said Hogan was encouraged to see "Speaker Busch and members of the General Assembly are getting on board" with such ideas and that the governor is eager to hear more details.

"Maryland's biggest city must serve as the economic and cultural heart of our state," spokesman Matthew A. Clark said.

The lawmakers said they looked for ways to inject money into existing programs and community networks to quickly show a difference to city residents. They also sought to coordinate an overwhelming number of suggestions on how the state could help a city plagued by poverty.

"I couldn't even mention all the institutions and organizations that are trying to do something to make Baltimore City better," said Del. Curt S. Anderson, a Democrat who leads the city's House delegation.

"So many people have had so many ideas," Anderson said. "Everybody wants Baltimore to be great. This past summer has shown us you can't be great when there is a significant portion of the population that is struggling. Our work is trying to make sure those who are struggling have access to the things that the rest of us have: jobs, housing and food."

The proposals, which have not yet been drafted as bills, include keeping the city's libraries open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. Another would take the first steps to create a charter school where adults who dropped out of high school could get a diploma instead of a General Educational Development certificate.

Busch, whose day job is as recreation administrator for Anne Arundel County government, wants to enhance Druid Hill and Herring Run parks as what he described as destination facilities on each side of the city. The plans include baseball diamonds, turf fields, lighting, locker rooms and concessions areas. He also wants the state to put up money to attract private companies to pay for organized sports leagues for city youth.

Howard Libit, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, said she is "very appreciative of the speaker's commitment to want to help the city."

"There are a lot of ideas on here that will bolster or accelerate efforts we've had," he said. "A boost of state funding would be a great help, whether it's money for recreation centers or money to accelerate demolition" through existing city programs.

The city spent $32 million on demolitions over the past two fiscal years, plus more money from state and federal governments.

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City officials estimate that Baltimore has about $100 million in potential demolition projects that could start immediately.

Libit said city officials are concerned, however, about the possibility of unfunded mandates.

"If the state is going to tell us what libraries have to be open for how long, we hope it comes with funding to make it possible," he said.

Other ideas that lawmakers plan to push include establishing a fund to encourage public institutions such as universities to erect satellite buildings in neighborhoods after demolition to spur redevelopment and giving incentives to businesses to provide job-training programs.

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said he has met with Busch and others who developed the legislation package.

"My wish is that we could get it all," Young said. "I don't think we're asking for too much. As the city goes, so goes the state. Let Baltimore fail, let Baltimore become a Detroit, and watch what happens to the state."

Political experts say that while leading House Democrats feel it is imperative to help Baltimore, recent opinion polls suggest that the political will in much of the state might not be with them.

"There's a general understanding that Baltimore City is in many respects in crisis and is in desperate need of some investments," said political scientist Todd Eberly of St. Mary's College in Southern Maryland. But he said Hogan's upset win in 2014 did not occur "because the electorate is clamoring for ever more government spending. If you look at where Hogan won, quite frankly you have resentment about how much is spent in Baltimore City."

Mileah Kromer, a political scientist at Goucher College, said the political climate in Annapolis could shift based on how Baltimore responds to the verdicts in the trials of the six officers charged in the Freddie Gray case. Gray's death in April sparked rioting in the city.

"Oftentimes, residents who don't live in the city blame Baltimore for Baltimore's problems," Kromer said. Looting and violence could dampen sympathy for efforts to help its residents, she said.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, the other presiding officer in the General Assembly, has attended many of the meetings at which the proposals backed by Busch were developed. The Prince George's County Democrat has not taken a position on them.

One of the chief ways that lawmakers hope to provide funding for the city is through a relatively small program called the Baltimore Regional Neighborhood Initiative, or BRNI. The state now puts less than $5 million a year into the program, which gives grants to community development groups vetted by the city and state. The groups have used the money in recent years to buy vacant houses, help homebuyers with down payments and renovate community centers.

"You've got these instances and these initiatives where they're already working with the community groups, they've already activated people in the community, they've prioritized projects," said Matt Gallagher, executive director of the Goldseker Foundation, which distributes grants in the city. More money in the BRNI program "could accelerate a lot of really good ideas."

One proposal would relax state regulations and procurement laws to allow the many public institutions in the city, including hospitals and universities, to give contracts to city businesses or to businesses that promise to hire city workers.

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Advocates say the change would cost the state very little but would direct money that is already being spent into jobs for city residents.

"We're keen on doing as much as we can with local hiring," said Jay A. Perman, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore, who met with lawmakers to help develop the idea. Perman said the school needs changes in state laws and regulations to give a preference to hiring city workers, which he described as "giving a leg up to those who are of the community."

State Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat interested in developing a charter school for adults, called the package "comprehensive." He noted that many of the proposals are expansions of existing city programs and said the city needs help beyond demolition of vacant buildings.

"It's one thing to knock down houses and vacant structures," Ferguson said. "It's another thing to know what to do with them next."

Among the more far-reaching proposals are those from Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. McIntosh wants to create incentives for schools with a high concentration of poverty to keep their doors open well into the evening, providing a safe space and meals for children.

"We always say schools should be the focal point of our community. Too many of our schools close up at 3:45 p.m.," she said. "It would help their parents, who I'm sure many times can't go pick up their kids at 3 p.m. It would help the kids working on remedial skills."

Busch and aides said the proposals will be refined before being introduced as legislation when the Assembly convenes in January.

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