Convention Center funds still aren't a sure thing

April 02, 1993|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Staff Writer

A major expansion of the Baltimore Convention Center is expected to be approved tomorrow in the House of Delegates, but it continues to face an uncertain fate in the Senate.

Yesterday, the House Appropriations Committee approved the $150 million expansion 25 to 4, with Committee Chairman Howard P. Rawlings, D-Baltimore, predicting approval in the full House, noting the project has the backing of House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent.

The first full House vote on the project is slated for today, with final action tomorrow.

"I think it's been enhanced by the reality that the city is contributing $50 million," he said. The remaining $100 million will come from the state through revenue bonds.

Meanwhile, proponents of expansion say they have yet to gain the support of a majority of members on the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, the first stop for the Convention Center after House action. According to best estimates, six of the 13 committee members are now behind the project, one less than needed.

"I'm hopeful but not in any way confident or overconfident," said David S. Iannucci, chief legislative aide to Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who has made the Convention Center one of his top priorities.

One Senate aide said the vote was "too close to call."

City and state officials say the expansion, which would more than double the size of the 14-year-old center, is needed to vye for convention business heading to other cities, such as Philadelphia and Washington. And they have taken pains to present the expansion as something that would benefit the entire state.

But the proposal has elicited grumblings from some lawmakers -- particularly those from Washington suburbs -- irritated that the state plans to spend that much money on what they see as merely a Baltimore project. They say it will be hard to defend at home.

"It's almost like political suicide," said Sen. Laurence Levitan, D-Montgomery County, chairman of the budget and taxation panel.

Legislative backers of the center are holding out little hope for support from Montgomery County, which is still smarting over last year's budget package, a deal which forced localities to pay Social Security taxes for teachers. Montgomery was the big loser.

Yesterday, four Montgomery County Democrats on the appropriations committee -- Delegates Jennie M. Forehand, Nancy K. Kopp, Christopher Van Hollen Jr. and Peter Franchot -- parted ways with their colleagues and voted against the project.

Ms. Forehand questioned whether the Convention Center would benefit the state and complained that the business community did not contribute to the project. She also wondered whether an expansion was needed, terming it " 'keeping up with the Jones.' "

But the state's other large subdivision, Prince George's County, is a different story and could provide important support, especially since Prince George's is trying to protect its own project: an $83 million performing arts center for the University of Maryland at College Park.

Lawmakers from Prince George's and elsewhere are withholding their support for the center until the last minute, in an effort to wrest money from the governor and legislative leaders for their local projects.

"It's the time of the session where one proposal gets tied to another," said one legislative aide.

Other lawmakers want the state to have more control over the Convention Center because of its large investment.

As a result, amendments approved yesterday by the Appropriations Committee would entitle the state to place a lien on the expanded portion of the facility for the life of the 20-year revenue bonds. Another provision would require the city to place a still undetermined amount of money in a reserve fund for future improvements.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, in a letter to the Appropriations Committee this week, said he was "comfortable" with the terms.

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