While the 1991 General Assembly session proved a complete bust for the Schaefer administration, it was a revelation for Baltimore City officials. Legislative leaders came out strongly in favor of helping the city, directing $9.9 million to Baltimore this year and commiting themselves to more relief efforts in the future. A new day may be dawning for the city in the House and Senate.
Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke deserves much of the credit. He worked assiduously to cultivate legislative leaders and acquaint them with the city's severe fiscal plight. His low-key perseverance and non-confrontational style helped his cause. So did the city's clear need for more aid to ward off reductions in basic public services.
The city also got a big boost when Gov. William Donald Schaefer embraced a state takeover of the City Jail, a $43-million budget item that could have proved a big drain on the city's limited resources in the years ahead. Once the facility is merged with other nearby prisons, the state can implement cost efficiencies and overhaul the jail's inept management. In return, the city will give up $38 million in police aid plus pay nearly $4 million in transitional expenses to jail employees, but the transfer will relieve the mayor of a huge budget headache in later years.
High on the city's list of achievements was a legislative initiative, a $9.9 million aid package for Baltimore with no strings attached. Equally important, legislators voted overwhelmingly to include language in the bill that puts the Assembly on record that something must be done about the fiscal disparity and tax inequities that exist between the city and wealthy counties. Lawmakers have to follow through on this commitment when they study changes in state taxes this summer.
Other gains for Baltimore include approval of higher sheriff's fees that will net $450,000; a change in the capital gains tax law that means an extra $1 million; another $350,000 toward phasing out the city's Baltimore Zoo subsidy and replacing it with state funds; planning money to begin devising a major expansion of the Baltimore Convention Center; financial support for the Christopher Columbus Marine Research Center, and a host of appropriations to underwrite capital improvements at city museums, medical institutions and public works projects.
Baltimore's poor fiscal health is beginning to prove a major drain on the state's well-being. Ways have to be found to underwrite local education, public services and economic enterprises. Legislators seem to have recognized this session that the time to help the city has arrived. They made a significant first installment.