Responding to criticism from lawmakers Thursday, Gov. Larry Hogan said money he proposed for a new Baltimore jail should instead pay for projects at state universities.
In a letter to leaders of the General Assembly's budget committees, Hogan asked that $18.3 million budgeted to design a new jail be spent elsewhere because "there is clearly no longer support for this project in the General Assembly."
Hogan asked lawmakers to keep $16.6 million in the budget for demolishing buildings at the jail site, where he shuttered facilities dating to the Civil War last year.
The governor cannot move the money himself — the legislature controls changes to state construction spending after the governor introduces his budget.
The Baltimore Sun reported Thursday that Hogan's spending plan delayed five college projects, including two at historically black universities in Baltimore, to begin building a $480 million jail in the city. The proposal incensed Democratic lawmakers, including the Legislative Black Caucus.
Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, said Hogan made a "good decision" in asking to hold off on the jail project. Kasemeyer said the jail and college projects were in competition because the governor was trying to reduce spending.
"You can't do everything," said Kasemeyer, a Democrat who represents parts of Howard and Baltimore counties. "It's not an unlimited budget. You have to create priorities."
The jail probably will have to be rebuilt at some point, Kasemeyer said, but "when you match it up with this or that — build a new jail or build new facilities at a school — I think the choice is obvious."
House Speaker Michael E. Busch said the governor ignored a work group that came up with a plan for replacing the jail and decided — on his own — to close it last year.
A new jail might be needed, "but not at the expense of educational institutions," said Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat. "The vast majority of citizens, particularly in Baltimore City, want to see their schools funded ... before they start to fund a jail."
Del. Nic Kipke, an Anne Arundel Republican who is the House minority leader, defended Hogan.
"I'm sure the governor never wanted to build a jail and, like anyone, would much rather spend those dollars in another way," Kipke said. "However, that facility needed to be closed. It was a liability, and the conditions were deplorable."
Hogan's request to eliminate some of the jail funding capped a tense day in Annapolis that began with members of the Legislative Black Caucus sharply criticizing the governor for a number of his decisions, including postponing the college projects in order to free up money for the jail. Del. Barbara Robinson, chairwoman of the caucus, called that plan "unconscionable."
Asked if they thought Hogan's decision-making was racially motivated, black caucus members responded: "Absolutely."
Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer rejected the accusation, calling it "shameful."
As black caucus members spoke to reporters, Hogan was being interviewed on "The C4 Show" on WBAL radio. Hogan told host Clarence Mitchell IV that he was open to dropping the jail project in response to lawmakers' complaints.
"If these folks who pushed for the jail no longer want the jail, we will not build the jail," Hogan said. "And we'll figure out a way to take another look at the budget, and if there are some better ways to spend that money. We're all about working together."
By the afternoon, Hogan had asked lawmakers to revise his budget proposal.
In July, Hogan abruptly closed the jail, which the state had run since 1991. The jail had been the target of a lawsuit over conditions for the detainees and was also the setting for a corruption scandal involving the Black Guerrilla Family gang, which authorities said essentially ran the facility until 2013.
Detainees were moved out of the main jail, built in the 1800s, into other buildings on the 27-acre Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services site.
Though the jail closure came as a surprise, some civil liberties advocates praised it.
Hogan had proposed spending $480 million over five years for a new, six-story jail that would house men and women, and include space for education and drug-treatment programs. Sixteen buildings on the site would be demolished.
Hogan's plan replaced an earlier plan endorsed by lawmakers that would have cost $780 million and taken 13 years to complete.
Speaking on the radio, Hogan said he wasn't keen on the new jail project in the first place.
"It's not my idea to build a jail in Baltimore. I have no desire to build a jail in Baltimore. … The legislature has demanded that we build a new jail," he said. "The city of Baltimore has been demanding that we build a new jail. Legislators that were critical in the paper voted for it. It was their idea, not my idea."
In his letter to lawmakers Thursday, Hogan suggested spending the money he proposed for the jail on higher education projects including:
•A business school renovation at Coppin State University;
•A student services building at Morgan State University;
•A biosciences building at the University System of Maryland's Shady Grove campus;
•A research and classroom building at the Southern Maryland Higher Education Center;
•A life sciences building at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County; and
•A school of pharmacy project at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore.
Lawmakers also were annoyed Thursday that Hogan compared them to rowdy college students during his radio interview.
"It's like they're on spring break. They come here for a few weeks. They start breaking up the furniture and throwing beer bottles off the balcony," Hogan said. "Luckily, in a few weeks, they're going to go home, and we go back to running the state and making progress, like we have for the past year."
The governor's remarks drew a vehement response later in the morning from Sen. Robert A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat.
On the floor of the Senate, Zirkin recounted hours of heart-wrenching testimony on serious issues the Judicial Proceedings Committee, which he chairs, had heard in recent days.
"I'm insulted, and I think every one of us should be insulted," Zirkin said.
Some Democratic lawmakers answered Hogan's comments with a touch of sarcasm, posting photos from hearing rooms on social media with the hashtag "#notspringbreak."
Mayer, Hogan's spokesman, defended the governor's comment.
"Governor Hogan was making a very serious policy point about the nearly 20 bills being pushed by the majority leadership in the General Assembly that only have one purpose — to limit executive authority and damage the office of the governor," Mayer said.
In an interview, Democratic Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller downplayed the division between the governor and some members of the legislature.
"Everybody has a bad day, and this was not a good day for the governor," Miller said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Erin Cox contributed to this article.