Legislators befuddled by Schmoke Convention Center tactics fuel rancor

April 13, 1993|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,Staff Writer

The General Assembly approved expansion of Baltimore's Convention Center yesterday despite Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, some lawmakers say.

"The mayor came down [to Annapolis] and almost screwed up the whole deal," Senate Minority Leader John A. Cade, R-Anne Arundel, told his colleagues just before the bill passed.

A compromise bill authorizing $101 million for the state's share of the project cleared both houses with minimum opposition.

But it took a long weekend of negotiations -- and more than a little rancor over Mr. Schmoke's threat to withhold the city's $50 million share rather than have the state own part of the Convention Center for the next century.

Mr. Schmoke's insistence -- which held the bill hostage for a while over the weekend -- left lawmakers wondering why the mayor risked losing the project, particularly when he's testing the political waters for a gubernatorial bid.

Some praised Mr. Schmoke for standing his ground. Others criticized him for being stubborn and petulant, much like one of his predecessors -- Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

Many came to the same conclusion as Sen. Laurence Levitan, D-Montgomery, chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee.

"He's not a very skillful negotiator," Mr. Levitan said.

But Janet L. Hoffman, a city lobbyist for 44 years, defended the mayor's actions, saying, "For a 'stubborn and petulant' man, he got what he was seeking."

The $151 million Convention Center expansion was one of the last big issues facing the General Assembly.

When initially proposed by Mr. Schaefer as the centerpiece of his legislative package in January, it looked like a tough sell and an easy target for angry legislators from Prince George's and Montgomery counties, still smarting over city support for a 1992 budget and tax package that hurt the Washington suburbs.

While those differences were eventually settled, the Convention Center bill did run into trouble in the final days over two other issues -- financing and state ownership. The ownership issue brought Mr. Schmoke's threat.

Mr. Schmoke favored the House version, which would have financed the expansion with revenue bonds and given the state two-thirds ownership until the bonds were paid off.

The Senate favored the sale of general obligation bonds, which would cost $45 to $63 million less than the House plan. But the Senate, prompted by Mr. Cade's concern over the city's ability to maintain the facility, wanted more. It wanted the state to retain two-thirds ownership for 99 years, with an option to renew forever.

That's where Mr. Schmoke drew the line.

While no one knew for sure why he dug in his heels, city officials and the mayor himself said he felt he was being treated differently than other executives.

"The mayor had an absolute right to be furious," said Del. Howard P. "Pete" Rawlings, D-Baltimore, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. "He felt, again, that the city was being jerked around . . ."

Other city officials say privately that Mr. Schmoke, who is black, felt there was an unspoken racial motivation.

That was compounded further by the notion that Mr. Schaefer -- who has feuded with Mr. Schmoke intermittently for years -- was somehow behind the change in ownership language.

"He hung tough, and he was right," said Sen. John A. Pica, D-Baltimore, head of the city Senate delegation. "Of course, if it had gone down, that would have been another story."

Mr. Schmoke hung so tough, in fact, that he walked away from deals over the weekend that would have brought the city much more money in the long run -- subsidies estimated at $1.5 million a year in perpetuity.

At one point, conferees were willing to reduce the state's ownership stake to 50 percent and subsidize two-thirds of the operating deficit for more than 99 years, instead of the 20 years originally proposed. The city currently absorbs the operating deficit.

But Mr. Schmoke would not accept the deal so long as the state held part ownership any longer than needed to pay off the bonds sold for the state's share of the expansion.

"Fortunately, the conferees were able to save him from himself," Senator Cade said.

In the end, the legislature agreed to give the state half ownership in the old center and the proposed expansion only until the bonds are paid off in 21 years.

That's close to the original House language.

Under the final deal, the state's $1 million-plus subsidy and $200,000 share of the capital improvement fund won't begin until 1996 and will run only through 2008.

"I'm having trouble understanding why the mayor didn't want the state on the hook for a longer time period," said Barbara A. Hoffman, D-Baltimore, chairwoman of the Senate conferees.

"I don't think the mayor came out of this a hero or a goat," Senator Hoffman said.

But, she added: "One thing the mayor and the citizens should never forget is what's in the city's best interest, that it's never just one person, but in what's in the city's interest."

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