Hogan vows to fight Maryland 'road kill' law

Erin Cox
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Gov. Hogan's "top priority" next year promises a partisan fight over controlling transportation projects.

Gov. Larry Hogan said Wednesday his "top priority" next year will be repealing a law he dubbed "the road kill bill," which he says requires him to stop work on nearly every transportation project in Maryland.

That characterization is contradicted by an advisory letter from the office of the state attorney general, which says the governor can choose which transportation projects to pay for.

The Republican governor told reporters in Annapolis he would introduce emergency repeal legislation next month and "fight" the Democratic-controlled General Assembly.

Hogan vetoed the law this spring. The legislature immediately overrode the veto.

Hogan has called for the law's repeal for months, but on Wednesday gave the most vivid display of his approach: He gave the law a catchy nickname, and predicted "catastrophic" consequences if it isn't upended. He displayed large pictures depicting "killed" projects in Maryland's six largest counties, and listed dozens that he said would have to be canceled.

"I could go on all day," he said.

Advocates for the law say it requires only that the Hogan administration publicly score and rank transportation projects, and provide an explanation if he wants to deviate from the ranking in deciding which projects to prioritize.

Assistant Attorney General David Stamper wrote an advisory letter that supported that interpretation. He said the administration can pick "a project with a lower score over a project with a higher score if it provides, in writing, a rational basis for the decision."

Hogan said anyone who believes the legislation is only advisory "is ignorant of the facts."

"It will wreak havoc on our entire transportation system," he said.

He said it would "immediately terminate" nearly $1 billion in planned road projects representing 66 of the top 73 projects in the state.

The governor accused lawmakers of voting blindly for an "ill-informed and wildly misguided" bill and granting final passage "without hearings or any public input."

The bill went through the legislative process, which includes committee hearings and floor debate. One hearing was canceled.

Hogan said it was written by "special interests and lobbyists" who had tricked Maryland leaders into approving it without knowing what it would do.

The governor said the attorney general's office supported his assertion that the legislation ties his hands and requires him to cancel projects.

His office did not provide a letter supporting that claim. Instead, it released a copy of regulations issued by his administration.

The regulations omit the law's language describing the governor's discretion to choose which transportation projects are funded. The regulations provided included a signature from an assistant attorney general attesting that the regulations were legal.

Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer said the signature suggested the attorney general's office agreed with the governor that the law ties his hands.

A spokeswoman for the Maryland attorney general's office said the routine "certificate of legality" signed by a lawyer "simply means that it is not inconsistent with state law."

Del. Brooke Lierman, the freshman Democrat from Baltimore who led debate on the bill in the House, said she was "astonished at the breadth and depth of his misstatements of the bill and what it does."

"Gov. Hogan seems to be creating his own fake news," she said. "It's just a score, and that shows to us, the taxpayers, how we're spending our money in a transparent way.

"I don't know why the governor is so opposed to transparency in transportation funding."

Legislative leaders have said repeatedly that Hogan's claims are hyperbole, and he retains the legal authority to fund transportation projects as he sees fit.

They point to the final line of the law, which reads "nothing in this Act may be construed to prohibit or prevent the funding of the capital transportation priorities in each jurisdiction."

The legislation requires state officials to consider public transit and the number of people who would be affected by a project when determining its ranking.

Hogan's administration says that ranking system disproportionately favors large jurisdictions. Most of those counties between Baltimore and the District of Columbia are Democratic strongholds.

Lawmakers approved the legislation after Hogan canceled the Red Line light rail project that would have connected East and West Baltimore.

Republican House Minority Leader Nic Kipke called the legislation "a knee-jerk reaction to the Red Line being scrapped."

"This bill passed for exclusively political reasons," he said.

Kipke said he thinks the law is unnecessary, but it doesn't even meet its goal.

"If you wanted to include a scoring process to inform how transportation projects are prioritized, this policy is totally flawed," he said.

The law requires the state to prioritize the highest-scored projects, and allows the Department of Transportation to fund a lower priority project "if it provides in writing a rational basis for the decision."

It was not immediately clear what would happen if lawmakers disagreed with the administration's rationale.

Hogan has objected to the legislation since its introduction, saying it would usurp the governor's power. His transportation secretary, Pete Rahn, said the current system for determining which road projects get built was transparent and not in need of change.

Virginia uses a public scoring system to prioritize transportation projects.

Hogan has toured Maryland to announce road projects and tout his plan to repair every one of the state's 65 structurally deficient bridges.

The record spending needed to do so is enabled by the gas tax increase signed in 2013 by then-Gov. Martin O'Malley.

At the time, Democrats said it would provide an infusion of hundreds of millions of dollars a year for transportation projects.

Hogan tried to repeal part of the gas tax increase in 2014, his first year in office.

Since then, falling gas prices have reduced the amount of money available for projects. Legislative analysts said last month the governor had promised $1.6 billion in transportation projects the state will not have money to build.

Transportation Department officials contested that analysis and the assumptions used to make it.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, said in a statement the governor was trying to "scapegoat" the transportation scoring law because he couldn't deliver on his promises.

Mayer, the governor's spokesman, called that idea a "wild-eyed" conspiracy theory.

"The tin-foil hat brigade has taken over the legislature," he said.

ecox@baltsun.com

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