Baltimore Symphony musicians rally for state funding to save the orchestra

Members of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra demonstrated Thursday in front of the Maryland State House. (Cheryl Diaz Meyer/For The Washington Post)

Wearing tuxedos with tails and lugging brass horns and metal music stands, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra musicians rallied in Annapolis on Thursday to urge Gov. Larry Hogan (R) to release funding to help save the orchestra — and their jobs.

The orchestra is one of about three dozen programs and projects waiting for the governor to make available money that the General Assembly “fenced off” in the state’s $46.6 billion budget — meaning Hogan could not reroute it to other priorities. The orchestra announced last month that it was canceling its summer programming to reduce costs, cutting the season from 52 to 40 weeks per year.

“Governor Hogan, we are the Baltimore Symphony musicians,” Michael Lisicky, a second-chair oboist, yelled into a white megaphone while a half-dozen musicians played “That’s a Plenty” across the street from the statehouse. “We urge you to release the funds.”

In addition to $1.6 million specifically to help keep the orchestra afloat, the General Assembly set aside $127 million for school construction, $3.5 million to launch a grant fund to pay for testing a backlog of rape kits and $1 million for a summer youth jobs program in Baltimore, among other things.

“These are not frivolous items,” said Del. Maggie McIntosh (D-Baltimore City), the chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, adding that the legislative priorities are a “small, tiny, fraction” of the state budget. “They are of major importance to our constituents.”

The back-and-forth is part of an annual budget battle between theDemocratic majority legislature and Hogan that essentially pits the governor’s budget priorities against the General Assembly’s. In past years, Hogan has at times refused to release money for the General Assembly’s priorities, instead placing the money in the state’s rainy day fund.

House Democrats this week began waging a social media campaign against that practice, using the hashtag #FreeTheFunds and urging followers to contact the governor’s office to ask him to do so.

Hogan on Thursday accused the legislature of playing “political games” by fencing off money for its priorities instead of requesting supplemental funding for them. “We’ve said repeatedly that we’re not going to let them play those kinds of games,” he said.

The General Assembly cannot add money to the spending plan that the governor introduces during the budget process but can shift money from one fund to another to pay for programs it prioritizes. Setting aside the money restricts it from being used elsewhere. The state constitution also gives the governor the authority to decide whether he wants to comply with the changes.

Hogan hinted during a Thursday morning news conference that he does not plan to provide the additional funds to the orchestra.

“We put $8 million into the BSO,” Hogan said. “They received the most money of any arts group in the state, 74 percent higher than any other arts group. . . . We continue to pour millions and millions of dollars into the BSO, but they’ve got real serious issues and problems with the management, with losing the support of their donor base.”

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) on Thursday accused the legislature of playing “political games” by fencing off money for its priorities instead of requesting supplemental funding. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

Hogan spokesman Michael Ricci said the legislature chose to “fence off” the money for the BSO instead of working with the governor and the administration to provide supplemental funding for the orchestra.

“It’s a classic example of how this tactic puts important projects in the middle of the back-and-forth,” he said.

The state is facing a structural budget shortfall of $961 million, Ricci said, and the governor “has to make these decisions with that budget picture in mind.”

Ricci said he expects the governor to make a budget announcement in coming weeks. He would not say whether the governor will release any of the funds.

State Sen. Nancy J. King (D-Montgomery), chairwoman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, said the governor should release the funds to help the orchestra “get on its feet.” She said she hopes Hogan also considers the funding of the other programs.

“We were careful about what we fenced off,” King said. “None of this was looked at lightly.”

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