Ehrlich pushes to alter historic tax credit bill

Delegate's amendments limit city redevelopment

General Assembly

April 03, 2004|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

The Ehrlich administration is pushing to undo the General Assembly's changes to the state's historic preservation tax credit, a sparkplug of Baltimore's revitalization efforts, after a Senate committee agreed to amendments limiting the program's benefits to the city.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. expressed optimism that the administration's differences with House Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Sheila E. Hixson will be resolved.

However, some of the program's strongest supporters said the changes, originally made in Hixson's committee Thursday, are damaging enough that it might be better if the bill were killed.

"We'd be better off to start again next year," said Gerard E. Evans, a lobbyist for Baltimore redevelopment backer Peter G. Angelos. Evans said that among other problems, the changes would effectively shut down the commercial component of the program -- including the revitalization of the city's west side -- for the next 15 months.

The Senate Budget and Taxation Committee considered removing some of Hixson's amendments, but yielded after the Montgomery County Democrat sent a message to take it or leave it.

One of the amendments added by Hixson would limit the amount of credits for commercial redevelopment that could be used in any jurisdiction to 50 percent. The change was aimed at Baltimore, which has been using about 90 percent of the credits issued statewide in recent years.

An extension of the historic tax credit program, which will expire in June without General Assembly action, is part of Ehrlich's legislative agenda. But yesterday, all three Republicans present for the Senate vote opposed the amended bill.

Ehrlich said the differences were a matter of "geographical politics" playing itself out. "We're trying to get Sheila to back off," he said.

The tax credit, which has helped finance the redevelopment of the Hippodrome and other highly visible projects, has broad support from mayors and developers throughout the state. Comptroller William Donald Schaefer has been a champion of the credit and was chairman of a task force that drafted legislation extending the program.

The program's critics are fewer, but they occupy key positions in the Assembly and its staff. Hixson, in particular, has objected to the difficulty of predicting what the program will cost in any given year.

Harry Schwartz, a former federal housing official who served on the task force, said he was "deeply disturbed" by the Assembly's amendments.

Schwartz said the amendment limiting Baltimore to 50 percent of the commercial projects is ill-advised because "the rest of the state is only good for 10 to 20 percent" of the projects.

Another change, Schwartz said, would create a competition in which projects would be ranked to see which would receive the credits. He said that would open the process to improper influences, including "telephone calls from important persons."

"If it's subjective, then the system can be tampered with, and in Maryland we have a bad history of things happening when you have a system that isn't tamper-proof," he said.

Assembly on baltimoresun.com

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Read the text of proposed legislation, including the Senate slots bill, SB 197; the budget bill, SB 125; the assault weapons ban, SB 288; and the historic tax credit bill, HB 679.

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