Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Déjå Vu

I’ve been reading about — with great interest — the most recent turf battle between Gov. Larry Hogan and Baltimore City and Baltimore County public schools officials.

Hogan is using his gubernatorial and Board of Public Works power to withhold education funding, essentially blackmailing the superintendents to speed up air conditioning plans if they want to see state funds released to their school systems.

Online comments regarding the debate/power struggle, spurred also by a recent press release announcing record casino revenues, are bringing attention to the state’s “trust fund” for education, funded by a (mysterious/unknown/hidden/well-protected) percentage of casino revenue.

It seems as though there isn’t a credible accounting for these funds, or any real, clear-cut proof that the money is making its way to local education systems at all.

I raised these very questions nearly eight years ago as Marylanders were going to the polls to approve casino gambling in the state.

History shows us that these “new” funds aren’t new funds at all, but rather “replacement” funds for the money the state would have actually allocated to various projects. For example, Baltimore County could be awarded $10 million in casino funds for education purposes, but the state reduces its allocation by the same amount, making the final budget a wash.

Just for you-know-what and giggles, here is a column I wrote for The Dundalk Eagle, which was published Oct. 2, 2008 (I’d link directly to the paper’s site but a website redesign wiped out archives of materials published before the redesign):

Let’s not buy into gambling for education again

Maybe I’m becoming a hardcore cynic in my old age, but I can’t believe Maryland's elected leaders  — and the many union and organization leaders who apparently drank the Kool Aid — think we’re stupid enough to truly believe slots money will benefit public education.

For those old enough to remember, this is at least the second time we’ve been down this road.

In the early- to mid-1970s, our esteemed elected leaders sold the idea of instant lottery tickets , now more casually referred to as “scratch-offs,” by telling a gullible and apparently blindly faithful constituency that this type of gambling would be OK because all proceeds would benefit public education.

Well, for at least 20 years — which means public education got a slice of the pie for 10 years or so — proceeds from scratch-offs have gone to the Maryland Stadium Authority, which was established by the Maryland General Assembly in 1986.

Its original mission was to oversee the creation of a new stadium to retain the town’s Major League Baseball team, as well as a new football stadium that would entice a National Football League team to call Baltimore home.

There was no fanfare, no public hearings, no broad announcements of the decision to divert scratch-off money to MSA. It just happened.

While public education floundered in many jurisdictions across the state, gambling money helped build state-of-the-art stadiums to attract extremely wealthy professional sports team owners to bring their businesses here.

I run out of fingers and toes counting the Greater Dundalk schools that have had major roof leaks, boiler problems and rotting doors and windows during that time, but two gleaming stadiums got built largely thanks to money that was originally promised to school systems.

It’s been 10 years since the opening of M&T Stadium — home to the Ravens and the second new stadium to be built  — but the Maryland Stadium Authority still exists.

Why? Because its mission has changed.

From the annual report on the MSA website: “The Maryland Stadium Authority is more than the name implies. Its projects promote historic preservation, adaptive reuse, community redevelopment, cultural arts and civic pride. In planning selected projects, MSA has the latitude to negotiate with other government jurisdictions and other departments within the state. Its mandate includes creating public-private partnerships for financing and operating facilities.”

In short it appears that anything under the sun could be a potential MSA project. The organization acts as developer, planner, landlord and negotiator. It seems to be a not-so-shadowy shadow government.

And I’d be willing to bet that MSA still exists simply because its leaders didn’t want to give up their fiefdom once M&T was complete.

So how are we to truly believe slots money will go to education? And what percentage of it? Five percent”? One percent? All of it? And for how long? Forever? Ten years? Until people stop looking at it?

And just because slots money will go to education doesn’t mean school systems will get more money than they get now.

There’s nothing stopping Gov. O’Malley from cutting state money in the same amount as whatever slots money is awarded, thus creating a wash in terms of net budgets.

When I worked for the Baltimore County Department of Recreation and Parks, we received funding from an organization called School-Community Center Programs (SCCP). The awarded money was intended to fund new after-school programs that could not exist without the grant. It was supposed to be extra money to create new programming — to augment local budget allocations.

But Baltimore County would cut part-time leadership funding in the exact amount of the awarded SCCP funds, thus defeating the intended purpose of the SCCP money.

I envision the same thing happening with slots money, and I will go out on a limb and say it will happen very quietly, without the fanfare or attention the pre-election promises and endorsements are getting.

And you know what makes me the angriest?

That our leaders think we’re stupid enough to swallow this line of bull a second time.

So, history tells us we did indeed swallow the bull, and here we are eight years later, with public education still struggling on many financial levels while, quarter after quarter, the state issues press releases touting the latest record-breaking casino revenue.

I’d say I told you so, but there’s just no real pleasure in issuing such a statement.

But this kind of history makes me understand why so many people have jumped to support Donald Trump in his quest for the presidency.

People are mad as hell and don’t want to take it anymore.

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