If ever there was a time when the rest of the state would step up to do something about the chronic social and economic problems that plague inner city Baltimore, you'd think this would be it. The 2016 General Assembly session will adjourn just two weeks shy of the anniversary of the riots that followed Freddie Gray's death, and the two top leaders in the legislature are backing a package of bills worth $290 million over five years to help the city. But the governor, who walked the streets of West Baltimore last spring to pleading for calm with the promise of solutions later, has been cool to the idea. We urge him to become more actively engaged to help ensure that this moment does not pass without a meaningful response to what happened last April.
To be sure, Gov. Larry Hogan deserves thanks for allocating an extra $12.7 million to help Baltimore City schools cope with the effects of declining enrollment. And the plan he announced in December for the state to engage directly in a campaign to raze vacant structures and redevelop parts of the city is a good one. That's an area where the state government's intervention can make a real difference. But the $700 million he touted for that effort represents relatively little new funding, and it only addresses one aspect of the systemic problems exposed by the riots. The state needs to do more, and the package of bills spearheaded by House Speaker Michael E. Busch and endorsed this week by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller represents an excellent start.
As with the governor's $700 million, there's somewhat less here than meets the eye. The largest single piece of the $290 million package comes from legislation that would effectively codify and accelerate slightly Mr. Hogan's promised state money for demolition. And other parts of the package — for example a scholarship program for disadvantaged students — wouldn't just apply to the city but to about a third of the state's jurisdictions, most of them rural.
Like the governor's focus on demolition, many of these bills seek to expand upon existing programs that are working or to fix ones that aren't. The scholarship legislation has its roots in a decade-old idea that was never funded and expands it in meaningful ways, for example by providing mentoring and other supports starting in middle school rather than waiting until high school, when it already may be too late for at-risk youth. In other cases — like a grant pool to help city anchor institutions with community building initiatives or a local purchasing preference for universities in the city — the bills leverage a small amount of state resources to generate larger economic activity.
All that is not to say that the package of bills doesn't require additional thought and scrutiny. Keeping the city's libraries open 12 hours a day, seven days a week is a great idea, but is it more worthy of the $7 million to $8 million a year it would cost in state funds than some other cause? It's also important to consider whether the state's effort to help might inadvertently put the city in a bind. The library bill, for example, requires the city to come up with part of the money, about $2 million a year. Similarly, Mr. Hogan's promise of more school funds comes with a required city match. But would his one-time infusion of cash trigger a permanent new expense for the city under laws requiring local jurisdictions to maintain their level of school funding effort from year to year?
A Hogan spokesman greeted the package by reiterating the governor's general disapproval of the legislature mandating him to spend money on any cause. Fair enough, but general principle doesn't trump urgent needs, and virtually all of the programs in question sunset within the next five years anyway. More troubling was the administration's implication that Baltimore is already receiving a disproportionate share of state funds. We disagree. Baltimore has a disproportionate share of the Maryland's problems and a disproportionate share of its wasted potential. Mr. Hogan saw it during the riots, and he heard it from people in the neighborhoods like Freddie Gray's in the days afterward. The state can and must play a broader role in solving Baltimore's deeply rooted problems, and it's going to require the governor and the legislature working together if it is to succeed.