Convention center funds doubtful as legislators quarrel Convention center expansion in doubt

November 21, 1992|By David Conn | David Conn,Staff Writer

If supporters of an expanded Baltimore Convention Center thought they had a tough fight on their hands before, this week's special session of the General Assembly may have turned their job into mission impossible.

The state's budget problems have made gaining legislative approval difficult enough for a $150 million project that would have been hard to pass even in good times.

Added to the mix this week was the rivalry between Baltimore legislators and those in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, which turned ugly in the wake of the budget-cutting deal the legislature passed.

The bill -- to cut $147 million in state funding of teachers' Social Security taxes -- was passed over the vehement objections of nearly all the Montgomery and Prince George's legislators, some of whom vowed to exact revenge on what they saw as a turncoat Baltimore delegation. The cuts hurt the most in jurisdictions with growing student populations, and thus rising teacher payrolls, like Montgomery and Prince George's.

"I have never been as upset as I was when I watched the city turn its back on Montgomery County," Sen.Laurence Levitan, a Montgomery County Democrat who is chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee that will consider the convention center project, said yesterday.

"I don't see the project surviving if I or Montgomery County have anything to do with it," he said.

The timing is critical, other lawmakers say. "It's clear to many of us that if the project doesn't move forward in this session, it's not going to happen any time in the next decade," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, and is one of the expansion project's strongest supporters.

That's because large, controversial projects are notoriously tough to pass during election years, he said. And after 1994, the city is expected to lose influence because of the effects of the recent redistricting process. Combine that with what Mr. Rawlings predicts will be a more conservative legislature and the prospects for an expanded convention center dim appreciably.

The project, expected to cost $150 million, would be paid for with revenue bonds. Those bonds would be paid back from the increased tax revenues generated by a center with more than twice the current 422,460 square feet.

The state already has approved $9.5 million worth of design and construction contracts for the project. The expansion, according the current plans, would be south and southwest of the existing center and would require relocation of the 52,300-square-foot Festival Hall, which was built to be disassembled.

Herbert Belgrad, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority, conceded that the project "is being held over everybody's head as a threat."

"It's the first time I've been in a position where people profess to prejudge their vote without an examination of the issues," said Mr. Belgrad, whose agency was handed responsibility for the convention center this year. The issues, he insisted, show that the project not only will not cost the state money, but will pay off handsomely in the long run.

The existing center, whose 15-year bonds paid off in 11 years, will have generated $170 million in profits by the time the bonds expire in 1995, according to the now-defunct Maryland Convention Center Authority. But the center, which could accommodate 85 percent of all conventions when it was built, now can handle only 60 percent. At the same time, Philadelphia and Washington are building or planning larger centers.

Regardless of possible future benefits, the state's borrowing limits may force some legislators to balk.

Maryland's Capital Debt Affordability Committee determined in late September that borrowing to pay for all expected capital projects would reach the state's self-imposed debt limit of 3.2 percent of statewide personal income, even without a convention center expansion. Exceeding that limit could cause bond-rating agencies to re-examine Maryland's triple-A bond rating.

That's why supporters hope to sell the idea of a regional funding authority that would share the cost among the state, Baltimore City and possibly some surrounding counties that stand to benefit from a larger convention center.

"The greatest impediment" to the project, Mr. Rawlings said, is not Montgomery-Baltimore rivalry, but conflicts between Gov. William Donald Schaefer and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke over the city's willingness to contribute to the financing.

He and others suggested that the rancor of the Montgomery lawmakers will subside as demands of political compromise return in January. "I know there's a lot of rhetoric about the death of the convention center as a result of the special session," said Del. Timothy F. Maloney, a Prince George's Democrat who is chairman of the capital budget subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee.

But "we can't exist as one state for very long if this regional warfare continues," he said. "One thing about the legislature is that today's enemies are tomorrow's friends."

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