Foes of stadium thrown for a loss Attorney general rejects challenges to Camden Yards deal

January 06, 1996|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Marina Sarris contributed to this article.

In a setback to opponents of a Baltimore football stadium, Maryland's attorney general dismissed legal challenges yesterday to the $200 million project and said work can begin without the legislature's approval. "The attor the anti-stadium forces.

Now stadium opponents may have to choose between two strategies: undertaking a court fight to prove the attorney general wrong or coming up with fresh legislation to try to overturn the 1987 law that allows the state to build a Baltimore football stadium. Any new legislation could be vetoed by the governor. Overriding a veto requires a three-fifths vote.

The 12-page opinion by Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. rejected some technical challenges to the deal the Maryland Stadium Authority struck to lure the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore. Mr. Curran also said the contract would remain

binding even if an Ohio judge orders the team to play though the final three seasons of its lease, as Cleveland is demanding in its lawsuit against the Browns.

"I would characterize this as the equivalent of a Pearl Harbor attack on the people of Maryland by the attorney general," said Mr. Flanagan, who requested the opinion. Although such advisories do not carry the weight of law, they are an indication of how a court may rule and sometimes are cited by judges.

Mr. Flanagan said he and his allies may challenge the matter in court.

Maryland Stadium Authority Chairman John Moag applauded the opinion, but played down the idea of snubbing the General Assembly. He said he hopes for and is seeking the cooperation of the legislature to keep both costs and rancor down.

Some lawmakers, unhappy with spending money on a football stadium during a time of lean budgets, have discussed trying to strip the football appropriations from the governor's budget request. Under Maryland's Constitution, this can be done by a majority vote, is hard to filibuster, and the governor is powerless to replace the funding.

But Mr. Curran's advisory said the stadium authority could sell bonds and break ground with already accumulated money even if the General Assembly eliminates the appropriation for next year. Once the bonds are sold, opponents would be faced with the unpalatable prospect of not paying the debt on a project already started, pushing the bonds into default and damaging the state's coveted credit rating.

Mr. Moag said he hopes it won't come to that, and doesn't believe it will. Such an outcome would make bond buyers nervous, driving up the interest that must be paid to attract investors.

Frederick Puddester, a deputy chief of staff for Mr. Glendening, said, "We are looking to work with the legislature, not slam dunk them."

Mr. Flanagan said the opinion is a setback but not the end of the road, and he vowed to continue opposing the project.

"It would be a lot easier for us if he had said what I think is correct, that the stadium authority exceeded its authority and the deal has to be ratified by the legislature," he said.

Mr. Flanagan accused Mr. Curran of trying to "tilt the political debate in favor of the stadium."

Jack Schwartz, Mr. Curran's chief counsel of opinions, denied that the attorney general has taken a side in the stadium debate.

"It may be that there are people in the General Assembly who now regret the degree of power that was given in 1987" to the stadium authority, Mr. Schwartz said.

Mr. Flanagan said he is hoping the stadium authority's use of the lottery will at least be restricted to the four games a year envisioned in the 1987 legislation -- something an earlier attorney general decision said was not required.

Over the next five years, funding sources, including lottery proceeds, are projected to fall $15 million short, in part because the football stadium at Camden Yards will not open and begin generating revenues until 1998.

Some lawmakers have called for an outright renegotiation of the Browns' contract, as well as the agreement to bring the Redskins to Prince George's County, to include more money from the teams. Mr. Moag opposes re-opening the Browns' contract.

The Redskins are building their own stadium, but legislators will be asked to approve $73 million in roads, sewers and other infrastructure costs for that project.

Yesterday, House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., a Cumberland Democrat, said he wants to be sure the financing plan for the Browns conforms to the 1987 law: "I need to be assured the overall financing plan for the Browns deal clearly falls within the framework of the statute we put in place when we created the public policy. If the financing plan falls within that framework, I can defend the plan 100 percent because of its overall economic and cultural value to the state."

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a Prince George's County Democrat, was out of town and could not be reached for comment.

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