Legislators create wish lists with money intended for stadium

February 17, 1994|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Sun Staff Writer

The money the governor wants to use for a football stadium in Camden Yards seems to be burning a hole in the pockets of state lawmakers.

Half the General Assembly, it seems, wants to spend the stadium money on something else: on a new basketball arena in Largo or Baltimore; on a conference center in Montgomery County; on a ballpark in Salisbury; on new prisons; or on extra seats at Oriole Park.

Yesterday, 14 delegates -- Republicans and Democrats from both urban and rural counties -- called a news conference to draw attention to their proposal to spend the money on new schools.

Their bill -- one of at least eight already filed to redirect the stadium funds -- would shift about $20 million a year in lottery revenues now earmarked for stadium-construction loans to building classrooms instead. The bill has 50 co-sponsors in the 141-member House.

Del. Christopher Van Hollen Jr., a Montgomery County Democrat and the bill's principal sponsor, said it would take effect only if the state failed to get a National Football League team to agree to play in Baltimore. While the bill's sponsors have not yet agreed on a deadline for getting such an commitment, Mr. Van Hollen said it should be before the legislature adjourns in April.

"This is an issue that has grabbed the attention of legislators from throughout the state," he said.

Del. James C. Rosapepe, a Prince George's Democrat, complained of a "feeding frenzy" for the stadium funds and said, "It's time to get our priorities straight. Schools are more important than stadiums."

Of all the proposals for recycling the stadium money, school construction seems to be the favorite by far among lawmakers.

With the baby boom generation producing a boom of its own, school enrollment around the state is soaring, classrooms are getting crowded, and the governor is pushing year-round schedules to reduce the need for new facilities. State and local spending on school construction is not keeping up with demand.

In this election year, spending the money for new schools suddenly seems to make more sense to many lawmakers than spending millions on a stadium, particularly one that may not be used more than dozen times a year.

The stadium plan goes back to 1987, when the General Assembly authorized the Maryland Stadium Authority to issue up to $235 million in revenue bonds to build both Oriole Park and a football stadium, if Baltimore ever got an NFL team. It also earmarked revenue from instant lottery games to go into a fund to pay the debt service on the bonds.

The Stadium Authority still has authority to sell $89 million in bonds for a football stadium, the amount left after the baseball stadium was built. In addition, about $21 million in lottery revenue has accumulated in a fund for the football stadium, and an estimated $19 million more will be available next year.

It is the cash from those lottery games that lawmakers are trying so hard this year to grab for other purposes.

Even the Stadium Authority wants to use about $9 million of that money to renovate the south end of the B&O warehouse adjacent to the Camden Yards stadium.

There also has been talk of using the stadium bond authorization itself to raise even more money for building schools or prisons.

But budget advisers to the legislature and the governor say that would be a bad idea. Revenue bonds do not enjoy the same high, triple-A rating that Maryland's general obligation bonds historically receive, and the interest costs associated with them would consequently be higher, they say.

The governor and legislative leaders also have noted that in recent years the state has substantially increased the money spent on school construction. This year's budget, for example, calls for $81 million, a figure House and Senate leaders said they intend to increase regardless of what happens to the stadium financing.

When Mr. Schaefer came to office, state spending on school construction was less than $60 million a year.

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