Thursday, October 09, 2008

Proposed Budget Cut – The Maryland Stadium Authority

By Marc Korman.

After I complained about blue-ribbon commissions, a few people asked me what I would do to address Maryland’s budget challenges. Regardless of whether slots passes, Maryland will have a $1 billion budget deficit in 2009 and serious fiscal problems in subsequent years. A few different ideas have been knocking around in my mind, but the one on my mind today is the Maryland Stadium Authority.

The Maryland Stadium Authority (MSA) was established in 1986, essentially to site, build, and operate a new stadium for the Baltimore Orioles, now Camden Yards. MSA went on to be involved in the Comcast Center at College Park, Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen, the Montgomery County Conference Center, and numerous other projects around the state. MSA is also responsible for feasibility studies for proposed projects, including an arena in Montgomery County and a soccer stadium in Prince George’s.

I have previously questioned the need for an arena in Montgomery County and noted some flaws in MSA’s feasibility study. Now I am questioning the need for an independent Maryland Stadium Authority entirely. As best as I can tell, MSA’s current job is to search for new mega projects to build, regardless of their necessity, cost, or practicality. MSA’s current to do list includes a Baltimore City Arena, which would be in addition to the already completed Baltimore Convention Center, Camden Yards, M&T Bank Stadium, Hippodrome Performing Arts Center, and so on. And I do not mean to just pick on Baltimore. Prince George’s is currently furloughing employees and is still putting the finishing touches on the National Harbor. Breaking ground on a new soccer stadium there, as some have advocated, does not sound like an efficient use of tax dollars.

I am not the first to raise the issue. In 2007, Gazette columnist Barry Roscovar discussed MSA’s need for a mission. MSA is authorized for 95 staffers next year and a budget of $65 million. Eliminating MSA will not balance the budget, but it will be a small step in the right direction. If any small part of MSA’s mission is deemed truly necessary, it can be carried out in the Maryland Department of Business & Economic Development (DBED).

MSA also has a debt service mission that must be continued. For example, MSA issued $23 million in bonds for the construction of the Montgomery County Conference Center. The continuing mission to service that debt can be carried out by the Maryland Treasurer in cooperation with DBED. It does not require its own independent administrative staff and support. The exact nature of that new arrangement would have to be worked out by the legislature in such a way so as not to harm Maryland’s AAA bond rating.

Some will make the argument that MSA contributes to the state’s economic development. When the Montgomery County arena or Prince George’s soccer stadium are discussed, that is always the major point of proponents. In response, I have two thoughts.

First, there is no budget cut that will not have opponents and arguments against it. Any cut or revenue increase going forward will be difficult.

Second, regardless of MSA projects’ long term benefits, in the short term they cost lots of money and require substantial investment. In tight budget times and with so many other needs, we do not need an independent authority whose purpose is to create work.

Instead, of finding unnecessary new venues to build, we should try to improve visitation at the sites we already have. Camden Yards’ attendance was the lowest ever in 2008. If we really want to build new infrastructure for economic development purposes in the coming years, I am certain that transit supporters will be happy to oblige.