Hogan officials refuse compromise in transportation fight

Erin Cox
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
The Hogan administration says there's no room for compromise on a transportation bill -- until it's repealed.

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan's administration is refusing to compromise with Democrats on a controversial transportation scoring law, demanding its full repeal before they entertain anything else.

"We can't salvage this law," Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn told the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee on Wednesday. Hogan's chief legislative officer, Christopher Shank, said if the administration discusses a compromise, "that conversation has to begin with repeal."

The transportation scoring bill has jeopardized funding for nearly all of Maryland's major transportation projects, with Democrats refusing to abandon what they see as a transparency initiative and Hogan insisting that implementing it would have catastrophic effects.

Hogan has said the law will force the state to cancel nearly $1 billion in planned road projects, representing 66 of the top 73 projects in the state. The Democrat-controlled General Assembly approved the law over Hogan's veto last year.

It requires the administration to rank transportation projects in line for state money and provide a public explanation if lower-ranked projects are funded instead of those higher on the list.

The governor has dubbed it the "road kill bill." He argues it is poorly drafted and will subject the state to endless lawsuits, leaving him with no alternative but to cancel much-needed road and bridge projects.

Democrats, and a deputy attorney general's opinion, dispute Hogan's interpretation of the law and say the ranking system is merely advisory.

Wednesday marked the first public debate between the administration and lawmakers since Hogan announced that his top legislative priority this year was to repeal the law. Even the Democrats' offer of a compromise revealed how deeply partisanship has driven a wedge between the governor and the legislature.

"We don't want a full scale war, even though some of us have been personally attacked," Sen. Douglas J.J. Peters, a Prince George's County Democrat, told administration officials.

The governor's political group, Change Maryland, has targeted Democrats with attack ads claiming they're trying to thwart Hogan's transportation plans — attacks that Democrats on Wednesday said crossed the line of civil political debate.

"I've never had anyone question my integrity or my motives ever — until this administration," said Sen. Ed DeGrange, an Anne Arundel Democrat.

The fight over whether Maryland should change the way it reviews and funds major transportation projects has left local governments pleading for any resolution that ensures roads and bridges get built.

Michael Sanderson, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties, asked lawmakers to "please do something."

"Please don't leave us where we are," he said.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller offered a compromise that would delay implementation of the law and rewrite the scoring system.

In an unusual and extended speech before the committee, Miller, a Democrat, reiterated that "repeal is out of the question" and the "public is crying out for an answer" to how Maryland is spending billions generated by a 2013 gas tax increase.

"We don't need the rhetoric," he told Hogan officials. "I'll offer a peace deal ... if we had a pipe, I'd smoke it."

Shank, the governor's top lobbyist, said Miller's plan would require the state to spend $7.5 million a year executing what it sees as a flawed scoring process.

That "$7.5 million paves paves a lot of roads in the state," he said.

Baltimore Democratic Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden told Hogan administration officials "the Baltimore region is getting screwed" by the governor's transportation plan, and said the current debate would not be happening had Hogan not canceled the proposed Red Line light rail project that would have connected East and West Baltimore.

McFadden said Democrats voted for a 2013 gas tax increase to pay for transportation project across the state, but the proceeds are disproportionately being doled out to Republican areas, where residents support the governor.

"We in the Baltimore region made those tough votes, and we ended up on the short end of the stick," he said.

ecox@baltsun.com

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