School construction money tops city's priorities for Assembly session

An ambitious plan to secure tens of millions of dollars in state funding to fix Baltimore's dilapidated school buildings is the top priority for city officials in the General Assembly session that begins next week.

The city's delegates and state senators are also united in opposition to Gov. Martin O'Malley's plan to build a new juvenile jail in Baltimore.

"The governor had planned on building a new juvenile jail. That kind of flies in the face of the philosophy for most of us," said Del. Curt Anderson, who chairs the city's House delegation. "We want new schools, not jails."

Though Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has not taken a position on the jail, the mayor will be pushing legislation attempting to reduce juvenile arrests. The mayor will back a measure that would allow police officers to give civil citations for certain nonviolent juvenile offenses, such as disorderly conduct, trespassing, loitering and gambling, said Ryan O'Doherty, Rawlings-Blake's spokesman.

The legislation also would allow authorities to keep some young offenders out of the juvenile justice system by offering a "comprehensive treatment plan" instead.

"We believe this legislation will serve to allow law enforcement to divert juvenile arrests by over one-third and more appropriately deal with the problem behavior," O'Doherty said.

The administration, delegates and senators all say their top priority is seeking legislative approval for the school system's plan to fund school construction. The plan hinges on securing at least $32 million a year in capital funding from the state in the form of a long-term block grant, which would allow the system to borrow to carry out the plan quickly and pay back the money over time. The 10-year plan would rehabilitate 136 school buildings while closing 26 others.

Critics have expressed concern that the block grant is another liability for the state and could hurt its bond rating. But Anderson said further study has allayed some of those fears.

"We really want to push that so we can take care of the bad school stock and aging infrastructure," said state Sen. Verna Jones-Rodwell, chairwoman of the city's Senate delegation.

The second priority, Anderson said, is to "avert the building of a new juvenile detention facility." The state plans to build a new $70 million juvenile detention center in East Baltimore to hold teens convicted of violent crimes who are now housed at the city jail with adults. The federal government says the facility is needed so the teens aren't kept in poor conditions, but city legislators believe spending millions on a new jail sends a poor message to Baltimore's youth.

Anderson said delegates also will work to close loopholes in the state's speed camera laws that have allowed the city and some other jurisdictions to pay their vendors per citation. The so-called bounty system is not what the legislature intended, Anderson said. "We want to find out what language could be used to change that," he said.

Jones-Rodwell said the city's senators will also focus on securing additional funding for higher-education institutions, including Coppin State University and Morgan State University, and for transportation projects, specifically the Red Line, a $2.2 billion light rail project that would cover 14 miles between Woodlawn and Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.

"We really look forward to making sure that Baltimore receives those resources so we keep the city moving forward," Jones-Rodwell said.

For her part, Rawlings-Blake will support gun-control legislation that would crack down on illegal gun trafficking and straw purchases, where someone purchases a gun for a person who is barred from owning one. The legislation also would reduce the number of rounds of ammunition allowed in magazines and tighten licensing requirements for gun purchases, including instituting a stronger screening process for those with mental illness, the mayor's spokesman said.

The mayor, O'Doherty said, also will push legislation to crack down on illegal dumping and open up casino jobs for more city residents.

Under current law, individuals convicted of a "crime of moral turpitude" are banned from seeking employment in a Maryland casino. Rawlings-Blake will push legislation that will allow employers to look back only five years for these crimes and "open pathways to employment for rehabilitated offenders," O'Doherty said.

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