Maryland Senate passes school construction proposal that Gov. Hogan has promised to veto

The Maryland Senate voted Thursday to overhaul the way the state approves hundreds of millions of dollars for school construction projects, ending a three-day legislative whirlwind that provoked Gov. Larry Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot to direct accusations of cronyism at the legislature.

After fending off a Republican filibuster, the Democratic-controlled chamber approved the bill by a 29-14 vote, enough to override Hogan’s promised veto. The House of Delegates, which crafted the proposal and attached it to legislation that contains popular school construction reforms, passed the bill Tuesday.

Lawmakers delivered the bill to Hogan hours after its passage Thursday afternoon. He has 10 days to veto or sign it, giving the legislature at least two days to override a veto before its annual session ends April 9.

The measure would empower a commission of state officials and appointees of the governor, House speaker and Senate president to decide which schools get built, renovated or repaired — stripping that authority from the Board of Public Works, the state’s spending panel comprising the governor, the comptroller and the state treasurer.

Democrats said the decades-old process needed to be scrapped because they believe the board has been playing politics with its oversight authority, dictating what projects local school officials could fund. Franchot and Hogan spurred intense political bickering over the past several years by demanding that Baltimore city and county schools install air conditioning, a high-profile issue they said demanded a response from Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, a Democratic candidate for governor.

“We need to, as much as possible, make these decisions on a meritorious basis,” said Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat. “We need to say, ‘This is the highest need and this is what we need to fix and we need to do it as fast as we humanly can.’ ”

Republicans spent two hours fighting the proposal, including reading on the Senate floor scathing comments that Hogan and Franchot made against the bill. Senate Minority Leader J.B. Jennings moved to filibuster a vote by reading from a book about the history of the board.

Hogan, Franchot and Republicans said the measure will not remove politics from the process, and argued it could potentially make it more fraught. They have said it removes authority from a panel of elected officials and gives it to appointed officials that could include lobbyists and people with business interests which might benefit from state spending.

The bill, titled the 21st Century School Facilities Act, includes policies recommended by a commission that has spent two years studying Maryland school construction, such as provisions to help growing jurisdictions acquire land for new schools and to give cash-strapped districts more flexibility in spending state money. The change to the board’s authority was added in an amendment to the popular bill.

Sen. Justin Ready, a Carroll County Republican, said that made it difficult to oppose the bill. But he said he could not support a proposal that opponents have said would make school construction decisions more political and prone to corruption.

“There’s a lot of great ideas in there,” Ready said. But, he said, “we’re taking away an important part of transparency and accountability that we’ve come to rely on in this state.”

Ferguson said he had to think deeply about whether the proposal to change the construction project vetting process was worth risking the legislation’s other elements. He said his mind went to desperate needs in Baltimore schools, where he once taught and his wife still works.

He recalled once having to help his wife shovel snow out of her classroom because a window wouldn’t close, and said administrators at City Springs Elementary/Middle School in Baltimore once had to make hourly building-wide checks for fires because its alarm system was broken.

“Where was the [Board of Public Works] then?” he said. “Parents across the state are clamoring for better schools for their children and the process has been broken.”

The 29 votes the bill received are the same number Democrats would need to override a veto that the Republican governor has promised.

Hogan spokeswoman Amelia Chasse had harsh words for the lawmakers.

“In what is surely one of the least transparent episodes in legislative history, 29 senators voted today to take away critical oversight and give authority over billions of taxpayer dollars in school construction funding to an unelected, unaccountable group that includes lobbyists, partisan operatives, and political cronies,” Chasse said in an email. “We hope they’re happy with the results — we can guarantee most Marylanders won’t be."

The state teachers union praised the General Assembly because the bill would raise the state’s goal for annual school construction spending from $250 million to $400 million and calls for spending $10 million for school security improvements in the wake of recent shootings. The advocacy group urged lawmakers to defend the legislation.

“While we hope Governor Hogan signs the bill, he has an extensive record of placing his own politics ahead of school funding, so we urge the legislature to ensure this bill ultimately becomes law — with or without the governor’s signature,” said Sean Johnson, the group’s director of legislative affairs.

After it became known Wednesday night that former Baltimore Sen. Nathaniel Oaks would resign Thursday morning, hours before pleading guilty to federal corruption charges, the likelihood of veto-proof passage appeared uncertain. His resignation came before the Senate vote.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said he waited to bring the bill up for a final vote until Thursday because he didn’t want to be accused of using Oaks’ vote to ensure veto-proof passage.

Conservative Democrats Sen. James Mathias of the Eastern Shore and Sen. Kathleen Klausmeier of Baltimore County voted with the majority even though they had supported many proposed Republican amendments to the bill. Sen. C. Anthony Muse, a Prince George’s County Democrat, was absent.

Sen. Jim Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat who is running for county executive, was the lone Democrat to vote against the bill. Sen. Craig Zucker, a Montgomery County Democrat, abstained from voting because he works in the comptroller’s office.

Brochin said he was conflicted — he said he doesn’t like the way Franchot and Hogan have treated county schools officials. But he said he decided to vote against the proposal because county schools have benefited from the Board of Public Works’ scrutiny.

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