Lawmakers raise concerns about O'Malley proposal to fund Towson baseball

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Gov. Martin O'Malley's plan to allocate $300,000 in taxpayer money to save Towson University's baseball team came under fire Wednesday from some legislators and key fiscal policymakers for being unprecedented and unfair to other college sports programs.

Comptroller Peter Franchot said the money, recently included in the governor's 2014 budget, is a "bailout" that rewards bad financial decisions by a university. Towson President Maravene Loeschke decided last month to eliminate the university's baseball and men's soccer programs because of insufficient funding and a lack of gender equity in the university's sports.

"With all due respect to the governor, I am not sure that it's his role to say baseball lives and soccer dies," Franchot said. "That strikes me as arbitrary. I hope that both programs are immediately reinstalled.

"[But] using taxpayer dollars for college athletic programs opens up a can of worms, which is all public universities asking for help with their athletic programs. It's not good fiscal policy. The legislature generally says, 'If you give Towson a couple of hundred thousand dollars, what about Morgan State? What about the University of Maryland on the Eastern Shore?' " added Franchot, who wants Towson to figure out how to pay for the programs internally.

O'Malley's spokeswoman didn't respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

Franchot and O'Malley became involved in the issue last month after they voted against an unrelated contract that came before the state Board of Public Works concerning the construction of a classroom and office building at Towson's new Harford County campus. They then requested that Loeschke come before the state's financial oversight panel to explain the decision to cut the sports programs.

O'Malley's plan resulted from a one-on-one meeting with Loeschke last week. Loeschke is still expected to appear before the board April 17.

Whether the funding is approved is up to the General Assembly, which is in final budget deliberations. The governor also indicated that he would include another $300,000 in the 2015 budget for the baseball team on the condition that the program is self-sufficient within two years.

Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, said lawmakers are evaluating O'Malley's plan.

"We're looking at all the options still; we haven't come to a conclusion yet," said Kasemeyer, a Democrat who represents Baltimore and Howard counties. "There is a right way to do things, and we should do it the right way."

Among their considerations is a recommendation by legislative budget analysts that if the state agrees to provide money, it come in the form of a loan.

Sen. David R. Brinkley, a Republican from Carroll and Frederick counties, said the plan sets a bad precedent.

"You hire a staff and an administration to run a school, and if that's the decision they make, that's the decision they make; it doesn't have to be popular," he said. "If the people hired aren't making good decisions, then you hire new administrators. It's a terrible policy decision, because then we'll have to address that for other schools, and that's not where state funding should go."

State Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, who is the third member of the Board of Public Works and who voted for the Towson construction contract last month, also has reservations about using tax dollars to fund college athletics.

"Ultimately, she thinks it's a decision for the university," her spokeswoman, Susanne Brogan, said about Towson cutting sports teams.

Some are concerned the governor's plan conflicts with a University System of Maryland policy that requires intercollegiate athletics to be self-sufficient. That policy says sports programs must be financed with money generated by the team, unless given approval by the university system's Board of Regents.

In this case, Mike Lurie, spokesman for the system, said any action by the governor and General Assembly would trump the policy.

"Outside of this specific instance, however, the Board of Regents has established an expectation that state dollars should not be used to support intercollegiate athletics," Lurie said in an email.

Towson isn't the first member of the university system to eliminate athletic programs.

Last year, University of Maryland, College Park President Wallace D. Loh accepted a task force's recommendation to cut eight of the university's 27 sports programs. Men's track raised enough money to continue, and a commission has been established to consider whether to reverse some of the cuts now that the school is joining the Big Ten Conference in 2014.

Mike Halligan of Timonium tried every way he could think of to save his daughter's swimming team at Maryland, including contacting the governor and legislators to petition them to intervene. Ultimately, his daughter, Amy, transferred to Western Kentucky University, and he returned his diploma and class ring when the sports teams were eliminated.

Halligan said he is disappointed that he couldn't persuade O'Malley to take action back then, but he is glad to see the governor's efforts now.

Halligan said Maryland should support collegiate athletics financially as many other states do, and he hopes this most recent decision spurs change.

At issue is finances, not Title IX gender-equality concerns, he said. College athletics are under enormous pressure to "play big-time sports, and big-time sports cost a lot of money, and someone has to pay for it."

"I appreciate [O'Malley] stepping up to save the program, at least one of the two," Halligan said. "I am happy that he is saving them, but there is a bit of melancholy.

"I would hope that the state would reconsider its position and make monies available to the athletic departments throughout the state."

ywenger@baltsun.com

twitter.com/yvonnewenger

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