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Amazon, yes; blank check, no

Maryland’s transportation secretary said something the other day in Annapolis that likely surprised some folks — including, perhaps, his boss. Testifying before a Senate committee Tuesday, Pete K. Rahn said the Hogan administration was prepared to write a “blank check” for whatever transportation improvements were needed to lure Amazon’s HQ2 to Montgomery County. He raised the possibility that the state could commit more than the $2 billion in road and transit upgrades already pledged as part of Maryland’s $5 billion bid for the second headquarters of the Seattle-based retail giant.

One day later, a spokesman for Gov. Larry Hogan said that the transportation secretary had misspoken and that he was merely trying to reinforce the message that Maryland intended to aggressively compete for the Amazon expansion. Even so, one wonders where the line between blank checks and aggressive pursuit is drawn. Clearly, there’s an intent to spend a great deal more on relieving traffic congestion in the D.C. suburbs beyond what is already pledged in the state’s six-year $14.8 billion capital budget, including the planned $5.6 billion Purple Line to Bethesda.

Now, not to get all provincial here — and keeping in mind that all of Maryland stands to benefit economically if Amazon chooses the site in Montgomery County and brings its 50,000 well-paying jobs to the Free State — but we couldn’t help but notice what a contrast all this transportation generosity represents compared to what happened to Baltimore’s Red Line project in June of 2015. Gov. Larry Hogan and Secretary Rahn declared that 14-mile east-west light rail to be a boondoggle despite its projected economic benefits and hundreds of millions of dollars committed toward the $2.9 billion project by local government and the feds, and they canceled it. The replacement? Mostly a reorganization of Baltimore area bus lines.

That’s on top of the Hogan administration’s as-yet unrealized and unspecified promise to redevelop State Center, its skepticism about spending more on fixing Baltimore schools broken furnaces and its repeated attempts to de-fund community redevelopment programs the legislature mandated after the post-Freddie Gray unrest, all in a city where jobs are badly needed and unemployment rates are high.

Meanwhile in regard to Montgomery County, the state’s wealthiest subdivision, a senior member of the Hogan administration has hinted that $5 billion may not be enough to throw at one of the nation’s biggest corporations (and given an opportunity to walk that comment back by a Washington Post reporter the same day declined to do so). Small wonder that Sen. Bill Ferguson of Baltimore called it “jarring” to hear Mr. Rahn speak of blank checks.

Well, he’s right. It is jarring. And even if Secretary Rahn misspoke, we have yet to hear the administration acknowledge there’s a difference between supporting an Amazon bid in Port Covington (which did not make the list of 20 finalists) and one in the tony neighborhood of White Flint in Montgomery County (which did).

Baltimore? Maybe worth a blank check. Maybe. Montgomery County, where the average household income hovers around $100,000 and the job base, population base (now well past the 1 million mark) and wage base continue to grow? Not so much. It’s all very well to make a robust bid for Amazon, it’s quite another to ignore the state’s other pressing needs.

Whatever Maryland wants to offer for HQ2, it needs to be held up to a rigorous cost-benefit analysis, otherwise the taxpayers of this state are just getting played by Jeff Bezos who gets his cake and eats it, too, on our dime, blank check or no blank check. Montgomery County isn’t Baltimore, where public investment is needed to offset deep social problems, much of them aggravated by long-standing racial discrimination along with concentrated poverty, violent crime and drug addiction. Montgomery County doesn’t need a “renaissance,” it needs to make smart decisions about its already-bright future.

Now, perhaps this was just all about semantics and a cabinet member anxious to be as welcoming to Amazon as possible and to reiterate the “business friendly” mantra that his boss campaigned on. But it sure sounds an awful lot like the kind of thing Mr. Hogan so often accused his predecessor, Gov. Martin O’Malley, of doing — spending without sufficient accountability. The difference is that these tax dollars are directed at an already-thriving business and not at public education or safety net programs. What we would not like to believe is that there are two Marylands under Governor Hogan — one judged worthy of economic development and one not. That would be a whole lot worse than “jarring.”

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