Boycott by Hogan officials puts $113 million in school construction money in limbo

At Gov. Larry Hogan's behest, two Cabinet members boycotted a meeting of a little- known state committee Thursday, effectively putting on hold at least $113 million worth of school construction projects across the state.

A Hogan spokesman said that was an unintended consequence of a deliberately orchestrated protest.

"We're not holding it up indefinitely," Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer said. "Our intention today was to make a public protest of something that we believe is unconstitutional."

The five-member Interagency Committee on School Construction, known as the IAC, was given unusual power by the General Assembly this year to approve all of the state's $285 million worth of school construction projects.

Exactly which projects up for final approval but now remain in limbo was not clear Thursday.

Normally, the committee recommends projects for final approval by the Board of Public Works, a three-member panel outlined in the Maryland Constitution that includes Hogan and Comptroller Peter A. Franchot.

But this year, following several disputes with Hogan, a Republican, over school construction money, the Democrat-controlled legislature cut the Board of Public Works out of the decision-making process.

Thursday's delay means that school systems will have to wait longer to issue contracts, which could complicate the ability to get construction projects done during the summer break, said John Bohanan, one of the members of the IAC.

Hogan objected in March when lawmakers put language in the state's capital budget to circumvent him. On Thursday, the governor's staff escalated those objections and said they were exploring legal options to restore authority to the Board of Public Works.

"We are evaluating all options, but if the legislature thinks they're going to hand over hundreds of millions of dollars to a group of unelected people ... they're sadly mistaken," Mayer said.

Hogan and Franchot, a Democrat, have used the panel as a pulpit to advocate for what they say is more transparency and financial responsibility to the state's contracting process. The panel's third member, Democratic Treasurer Nancy Kopp, often votes against the duo.

Last year, the pair used the process to withhold $15 million from Baltimore County and Baltimore City in a dispute over how quickly the jurisdictions should install air-conditioning units in schools.

Although some of that money has been restored now that Hogan and Franchot approved of the jurisdictions' progress on air-conditioning, not all of it has.

In January, the bulk of coming school construction projects — about 75 percent of the state's annual construction spending for schools — was approved by the Board of Public Works.

The balance, about $113.5 million worth, was up for final approval Thursday.

The IAC needs at least three of its five members in order to have quorum and legally make decisions. One member of the committee, former state lawmaker Barbara Hoffman, had been hospitalized and was unable to attend in person or by phone.

When Hogan instructed his two designees, acting Planning Secretary Wendi Peters and Department of General Services Secretary Ellington Churchill, to skip the meeting, their absence prevented a quorum. Bohanan and Schools Superintendent Karen Salmon were the only two IAC members to attend.

The state's capital budget does not take effect until June 1, so the remaining IAC members could meet by conference call to approve the projects over the objections of the Hogan designees. So far, such a meeting has not been called.

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