When Maryland's special advisory commission on professional sports and the economy hands its final report to Gov. Harry Hughes Friday, a $166 million price tag will be dangling from its recommendation to build a new multipurpose Baltimore sports stadium.
Debate over the stadium has centered chiefly on where it should be built, but some Maryland legislators, still bleary-eyed from the state's prolonged savings and loan crisis, have indicated that the question of how to finance it will become a more significant problem. Some of them are saying that a state infusion of bond money into the project is not a high priority in an election year.
The optimistic ones, such as House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Baltimore), said that as a policy issue, the cost of bailing out several failed savings and loans should have no effect on the state's ability to fund capital projects.
Whether the legislature is willing to spend that money, Cardin added, is another matter. The state's $220 million bond authorization limit -- a figure that the General Assembly lowered by $10 million this month in the wake of the thrift crisis -- also is needed to fund school construction, roads and other capital projects.
The less-than-optimistic ones, such as Sen. Laurence Levitan (D-Montgomery), decry the commission's plan for a sports lottery that is supposed to raise $30 million a year. He insisted that this is no year for a massive stadium bond appropriation.
"I really think the way to go is private money," Levitan said. "The professional sports lottery is not going to go anywhere."
Besides the sports lottery, the commission proposes that the rest of the $166 million, an amount that accounts for inflation and debt financing, be raised by floating $85 million in revenue bonds backed by the lottery and admissions tax revenue and $11 million in private sector contributions.
That proposal is part of the commission's report, which identifies needs in several of the state's sports industries, including racing. But the most controversial recommendation centers on the future of Baltimore's Memorial Stadium, which the report advises should not be renovated.
The stadium recommendation comes after the legislature authorized $100 million in bond money to pay for savings and loan bailouts should the state's $175 million insurance fund be depleted. That indebtedness has no direct effect on the state's general fund, but those round figures linger in legislators' minds.
Hughes' legislative liaison, Ben Bialek, said that it is premature to say whether savings and loan commitments will have any effect on a capital budget that will not be worked out until December.
"The stadium has not been discussed," Bialek said. "It will be considered along with all the other priorities."
Those other priorities, he said, include water quality projects, economic development programs, higher education and school construction. "All of those are legitimate capital needs," Bialek said.
Legislators say that there are those needs and more.
"I just came from a luncheon at the National Aquarium, and they're going to ask the state for $10 million for expansion," Del. Anne Scarlett Perkins (D-Baltimore) said last week. "That's a fairly sizable chunk of money."
Del. Nancy Kopp (D-Montgomery) fretted that a plan to allocate bond money for maintaining and renovating structures at state colleges and universities might suffer because of the savings and loan situation. It would cost $300 million, she said, just to repair the existing plants.
"It was not at all clear where the money was going to come from before," Kopp said. "It's murkier now."
Kopp said of building a new stadium: "Politically, at our end of the state, it doesn't look like the best thing in an election year."
Prince George's legislators such as Sen. Leo Green (D) also said that projects such as the stadium can afford to be kept on the back burner.
"I think to bring up projects in this year, they should have done their homework to prove that if we don't do it now it will cost us more later," he said.
For the aquarium, as for the proposed stadium, the question will become whether any new expenditures are justified based on the revenue the facilities can generate.
The aquarium, Perkins said, brought in $88 million in income last year as the state's leading tourist attraction.
Events at the stadium, according to the sports commission, contribute to a professional sports industry that is worth $1.1 billion.
Sports commission chairman Bernard Manekin, when asked about the possibility of not getting stadium funding this year, first said that such a delay would be "catastrophic," but almost immediately rephrased his assessment.
"We don't know what the atmosphere will be in January, what will be done between now and then vis-a-vis the savings and loans," Manekin said in an interview shortly before the special session. "I would personally be very unhappy if we pushed it back" another year. "Pushing it back would also increase our costs, and the desired site could become unavailable."
Sports, Manekin and others insist, is an industry that the state should be expressly interested in maintaining.
But many legislators join the commission in insisting that any state commitment to bond money for a new stadium hinge on Orioles owner Edward Bennett Williams' agreement to sign a long-term lease to occupy the facility. Stadium proponents, stung by the loss of the Baltimore Colts in 1984 and wary of the possibility of Washington obtaining a baseball franchise in 1987, said that the Orioles' presence must be guaranteed.
Sen. John Coolahan (D-Baltimore County), whose district includes the most popular proposed site for the new stadium, said any plans for the facility should be put on hold. "It's sure not a high priority in the sense of what we're going to be faced with," Coolahan said.
Besides, Coolahan said, Memorial Stadium would do just fine for another year if it were not for reports that Williams has privately said that he would prefer a new facility. Williams has made no public statement on the stadium issue, nor has he signed a long-term lease at Memorial Stadium.
"Mr. Williams apparently doesn't like to drive through the fair city of Baltimore," Coolahan said of the proposed move to a Baltimore Beltway location. "It would be a lot cheaper to buy Mr. Williams a helicopter."