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The audience at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's Thursday night concert wait for the musicians to appear on stage before a recent performance.
The audience at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's Thursday night concert wait for the musicians to appear on stage before a recent performance. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

More than 70 Democratic lawmakers on Wednesday sent a letter to Gov. Larry Hogan calling on him to release $1.6 million in funding they set aside through legislation for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

In all, 18 senators and 54 delegates signed the letter that partially blamed Hogan’s reluctance to release the funds on the symphony’s abrupt cancellation of its summer concert series and its move to cut musicians’ pay and vacation time.

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“It is our understanding that these decisions were made, in part, because of uncertainty whether you would release funding for the upcoming fiscal year,” the letter states. “We are concerned that these actions may have an irreversible impact on the quality of this world-class orchestra and will unfairly impact the BSO musicians and their families.”

The Maryland General Assembly this year passed a bill sponsored by Del. Maggie McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat, that would award the orchestra an additional $3.2 million in state funding for the next two fiscal years amid its fiscal difficulties. Orchestra officials were hoping they could use the money to secure a bank loan to pay the musicians over the next few months.

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra musicians are facing numerous challenges in the wake of the news that the summer season may be cancelled.

The letter sent Wednesday notes that McIntosh’s bill also created a task force to study the organization’s financial health and provide a fiscally sustainable path forward.

“Losing the BSO or seeing it diminished would be a tremendous loss for Maryland,” the letter states. Among those signing the letter were McIntosh, who is chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, and Montgomery County Sen. Nancy King, who is chairwoman of the Budget and Taxation Committee.

The Hogan administration has been reluctant to release the first year of the money fenced off in the legislation, citing a looming state fiscal deficit.

The money for the BSO is part of nearly $300 million in funds the Democratic-controlled legislature restricted this session for its priorities, including $127 million for school construction. Hogan, a Republican, has discretion to either spend that money on the initiatives selected by the legislature or keep it in state coffers.

Other fenced off items include: $3.5 million to test rape kits; $1 million for Baltimore’s YouthWorks program, and $7 million for technology updates at the Baltimore Police Department.

While deciding what to do with the restricted funds, the Hogan administration is considering projections that the state will face a $961 million deficit in the next fiscal year. Administration officials argue the restricted money could be needed if the economic forecast does not improve.

Mike Ricci, a spokesman for Hogan, has noted the BSO is the largest single recipient of the Maryland State Arts Council grants program. Between fiscal years 2016 and 2019, the orchestra received $8.7 million in state funding.

Ricci also said state officials are in discussions with the BSO to provide a $1 million bridge loan to the organization.

Citing deep fiscal problems, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has abruptly canceled its summer concert series — just weeks after announcing it.

He said Wednesday that the lawmakers never asked for a supplemental budget appropriation for the BSO. Hogan administration officials also note that the spending legislation was not proposed by symphony management.

"Legislators could have worked with us to provide this funding immediately, but instead chose to fence it off for later,” Ricci said. “Governor Hogan is a great supporter of the BSO, which receives more grant money from the state than any arts organization. In addition, we provided a bonus grant to the BSO last year, and we are currently in active discussions about providing a bridge loan."

Even as Democrats argue for the funds, House Republican leaders have urged Hogan in a letter to withhold the funding until the BSO gets its fiscal house in order.

"While we all appreciated the history and importance of the BSO, and want to see it thrive, the state cannot throw taxpayer money at the problem,” House Minority Leader Del. Nic Kipke of Anne Arundel County said last week. “There is clearly a serious problem within the BSO and that needs to be addressed before any more funding is provided by the state."

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The Republicans noted that the state has spent $100 million for the construction and renovation of the Strathmore performing arts center in Montgomery County, whose primary tenant is the BSO.

72 Maryland lawmakers wrote a letter to Gov. Larry Hogan asking him to release money set aside for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

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