Help for the City

April 14, 1992

No other Maryland jurisdiction had more to lose in the last-minute budget deadlock in Annapolis than Baltimore City. Had legislators failed to agree on a tax package, the city would have been $50 million in the hole with no new revenue coming in. For an already impoverished city, this would have meant disaster.

But city legislators worked assiduously in the extended session to form a solid and sensible coalition of interest with the Prince George's and Montgomery County delegations. This provided the winning margin for a tax and spending plan that allots considerable benefits to all three jurisdictions.

There was little "pork" in this package. The financial rewards won by the two Washington suburbs and the city are predicated on need. These are worthwhile programs.

The city's schools, so desperate for books and supplies, will net $34.5 million, mainly from the state's equity-aid program called APEX. Prince George's school system, also grasping to upgrade its education system, nets $19 million in APEX money, plus $5 million for its magnet schools.

Also, both the city and Prince George's receive one-time grants of $3 million each to fight violent crime. This problem is so severe lawmakers may have to make the grants permanent.

Other state aid will help the city end its Baltimore Zoo subsidy through a $3 million state pickup of city costs, and a $1.5 million allocation for two full-time circuit court judges to handle juvenile court cases. This should help relieve the juvenile-justice crush.

Along the way, the governor and legislators cut current city aid $27 million. But a new "disparity grant" for the poorest jurisdictions will ease the distress. The city's first-year share is $24.5 million. That will grow in the future if the rich-poor divide widens. The aim is to see that poor subdivisions receive a grant equal to 70 percent of the per capita yield of the piggyback income tax statewide.

This offsets the windfall rich counties gain from the new 6 percent income tax bracket (Montgomery County reaps 10 times as much as the city) and the higher piggyback income tax rate counties now can impose (Montgomery's windfall this year: $100 million). It is unlikely the city will raise its piggyback rate for fear of chasing its small upper class to the suburbs, though Baltimore could certainly use the $37 million first-year windfall.

Add in another $14 million in road-repair money and a raft of bond projects, including hospital expansions, repair of Lake Roland and money for the Maryland Bioprocessing Center and the Christopher Columbus Marine Biotechnology Center and Baltimore's legislators did surprisingly well. It was a difficult and bitter session, but state lawmakers eventually saw the importance of undergirding Baltimore's weak foundation. That, and the renewed ties with Prince George's and Montgomery legislators, give city lawmakers some reason for optimism in pleading Baltimore's case in the State House.

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