Assembly eyes cuts in state transportation aid to Baltimore

After deep cuts, Md. lawmakers consider millions more in reductions

March 11, 2010|By Annie Linskey | annie.linskey@baltsun.com

A new General Assembly analysis of Baltimore's transportation spending has reopened a debate over state aid to the city - and is leading some lawmakers to consider multimillion-dollar cuts.

The city receives more state funding than any county, and nowhere is that discrepancy more apparent than in the distribution of gas tax and titling fee revenues. Baltimore is to receive $130 million from that fund in the next fiscal year; the state's 23 counties will split the remaining $10 million.

"In the rural areas it is hard to explain that to people," said Del. Murray D. Levy, a Charles County Democrat. "People back in some of the rural districts are saying, 'We pay taxes, too.' "

That sentiment was echoed in the state Senate. "We have to make some changes," said Sen. James E. DeGrange Sr., an Anne Arundel County Democrat on the Budget and Taxation Committee. "I believe you have to make it fair and balanced throughout the state."

A study by General Assembly fiscal analysts is fueling the debate. It showed that in the current budget year Baltimore allocated less than two-thirds of its $241 million in highway money to maintaining roads - spending the rest on items such as crossing guards, tree planting, traffic police, student transportation to city schools and alley cleaning.

"I think it undercuts the city's argument that they need the money for roads," Levy said.

Warren Deschenaux, the state's top fiscal analyst, has proposed removing $30 million from Baltimore's allocation and spreading it among the counties. Baltimore County would see an added $3 million, Anne Arundel County would get $2 million and Howard could get $1.1 million.

"The aid has gone beyond transportation funding," he said. "We understand that the city has acute needs and a limited base from which to draw."

Legislators from Baltimore are accustomed to defending the large discrepancy in state transportation aid, frequently telling colleagues that the city needs more highway money because it has to maintain its network of 4,300 lane miles, a burden the counties do not share.

And managing an urban transportation network imposes "unique challenges" and is "completely different" from suburban and rural roadways, said Ryan O'Doherty, a spokesman for Baltimore Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake. "You dig up a street in Baltimore City and you have utilities," he said. "We have to manage a massive influx of commuters."

But this year the stakes are higher, because Baltimore officials already are struggling to cut $120 million from the city budget. Losing the state money, they say, could wipe out most of the funds for street and alley cleaning, prevent the city from fixing broken street lights, end traffic patrols and halt the towing of abandoned cars.

"You take this away and we will be completely devastated," said Andrew W. Kleine, Baltimore's budget director.

Meanwhile, city officials dispute the legislative analysis. They say that $17 million in local money pays for some of the items highlighted in the study that are more difficult to connect to transportation, such as funding for the 311 center, civic promotion and senior services.

Still, the analysis caught the city delegation off guard and has touched off a furious lobbying effort to convince lawmakers that Baltimore cannot stand deeper cuts.

"This question had not come up before," said Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, a Baltimore Democrat on the Budget and Taxation Committee. "It didn't come up in the past. I'm surprised that people are looking at it in a different way."

He acknowledged that holding onto the full $130 million will be tough.

"We're prepared in Baltimore to participate with the statewide reductions," he said. "I'd like to see [the money] stay there. Everything is on the table. Baltimore City is no different from any other jurisdiction."

No decision has been made, and lawmakers tend to view the legislative analyses as suggestions. And some experts in the General Assembly have cautioned that their colleagues should examine the bigger picture before imposing a knee-jerk budget cut on the city, which already has been subject to millions of dollars in reductions.

"When you look at it first, you think, 'This is really out of balance,' " said Del. Susan L. M. Aumann, a Baltimore County Republican on the Appropriations Committee. "You are taking a siloed look at it. Baltimore has been impacted in other areas because they have social needs."

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