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City, counties prepared to push for schools, road construction money

Topping Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's wish list for this year's Maryland General Assembly session is a renewed commitment for $1.1 billion in school construction and a pledge to keep the Red Line light rail project on track.

Rawlings-Blake joined county officials in voicing their priorities as legislators gathered in Annapolis on Wednesday for the start of the 90-day session. Like the mayor, leaders of other jurisdictions said they were focused on pushing for as much state funding as possible — and expressed concern over possible budget cuts that could trickle down to the local level.

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"My goal for this legislative session is to continue the progress that we've made with the capital funding for our schools," Rawlings-Blake said, as well as to protect "the investments that we need to make in our transportation system."

Continued funding for the $3 billion Red Line — a 14.1-mile light rail that would connect Woodlawn to the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in East Baltimore — is uncertain under Republican Gov.-elect Larry Hogan, who has questioned whether the state can afford it.

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Rawlings-Blake said she wants leaders in Annapolis to understand the consequences of pulling support for the Red Line, which is to be paid for with a mix of federal, state and local money, as well as contributions from private industry.

Suspending the project could mean the region would miss out on a once-in-a-generation investment from the federal government, she said.

"It's not like if you're in the supermarket and you let someone get in front of you and then you're next," Rawlings-Blake said. "That means we're at the end of the line. And that means we will be unlikely to see that type of investment come back to the city in our lifetimes."

Her administration is still drawing up its list of legislative priorities, but the mayor said she also will push for money to build affordable housing and tear down vacant and blighted homes. She also wants changes to the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights to make it easier to discipline officers.

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The full list of the city's legislative priorities is expected to be made final by the end of the month.

Hogan has not provided details on how he will address the expected $750 million shortfall for the year that begins July 1. He will be sworn into office Jan. 21 and deliver his budget proposal a day or two after that.

"We'll be playing some defense with the budget," said Andrea Mansfield, legislative director for the Maryland Association of Counties.

Counties have been hit in previous tight budget years when the state slashed money for local road and highway projects and shifted more of the burden of paying for schoolteachers' pensions to the counties, Mansfield said.

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz hopes to hold onto state funding and prevent costs from being shifted to the counties, aides said.

Kamenetz is specifically concerned about school construction money. Similar to the city, the county is in the midst of a multi-year, $1.1 billion school construction and renovation push aimed at solving the "twin dilemma" of aging schools and a growing student population.

Kamenetz said departing Gov. Martin O'Malley "treated Baltimore County very well" in school construction funding.

"We're hopeful that Governor Hogan does not cut the amounts that Governor O'Malley previously allocated," said Kamenetz, who noted that Baltimore County voters supported Hogan in the election and will expect something in return.

School funding also is on the mind of legislators in Anne Arundel and Carroll counties. For Arundel, the top priority is getting funds for a new high school on the state's radar. Officials say the county needs the new high school to reduce overcrowding.

The issue is different in Carroll, where school enrollment has declined. Legislators are concerned that if Hogan's administration tinkers with funding formulas, it could harm the county.

"We are trying to get a little bit of help from the state to be held harmless from loss of population," said Del. Justin Ready, a Republican. "We are losing money by losing enrollment."

Kamenetz also wants road money in Baltimore County to study improvement to Broening Highway in the area of the former steel mill at Sparrows Point. The shuttered mill is being redeveloped into an industrial complex.

Baltimore Sun Media Group reporter Chase Cook contributed to this article.

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