Lawmakers override Gov. Hogan's veto, changing decades-old process to decide which schools get built or fixed

In the final twist of a political power struggle in Annapolis, the Maryland General Assembly on Thursday overrode Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto of a bill that strips away his role in awarding hundreds of millions of dollars annually in school construction projects.

The veto override ends a whirlwind political spat and changes a decades-old process to determine when schools across the state get built or renovated.

The state had relied on the three-member Board of Public Works — consisting of Hogan, Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy Kopp — to make final decisions about school construction projects.

Starting in June, that power will rest with a new commission made up of appointees of the governor and top legislative leaders.

Hogan, who has said the board’s role is vital in ensuring tax dollars are not wasted, reacted bitterly to his legislative setback in a Facebook post.

“They overrode this veto and have opened the door to corruption in the school construction process, and again, it will not stand,” he said. “We will repeal this next session.”

The Republican governor then listed the names and contact information of the 29 senators — all Democrats — who voted to override his veto of the legislation.

“Remember their names,” Hogan told his followers.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, one of those whose names Hogan listed, said he had a cordial discussion with the governor just before the Thursday morning session. He suggested Hogan is a different person on social media.

“His Facebook messages spew hate. They spew anger,” Miller said.

In recent years, Hogan and Franchot, a Democrat, have used the Board of Public Works as a bully pulpit as they’ve questioned school officials about how they picked which projects to build.

They focused particularly on how quickly Baltimore County and Baltimore City should install air-conditioning, voting to withhold money when local officials did not comply with their timeline.

It was an action that leading legislators viewed as the board overstepping its authority. Lawmakers also have expressed a determination to end the annual “begathon” in which school superintendents and local elected officials come before the board to publicly justify their proposed projects.

The measure downgrading the board’s role is a small part of a much larger bill that will overhaul the state’s antiquated school construction process and set a new target of $400 million a year in construction spending.

Except for the alteration of the board’s authority, the legislation was the bipartisan product of a two-year study by a commission established to determine how to build schools more efficiently and economically. Many Republicans said they would have supported the bill without the provision ending the board’s role.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Maggie McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat, was a prime advocate for stripping the Board of Public Works of its school construction oversight. She has said publicly that Franchot’s handling of school construction issues have helped drive the legislature’s actions.

As the House moved toward a 90-48 vote to defy the governor Thursday morning, McIntosh pointed to the scene at the board Wednesday when Hogan publicly vetoed the bill and Franchot — who has no constitutional role in such decisions — signed the document.

“If you saw the veto ceremony, what you saw was theater, a circus,” McIntosh said. “And that’s what our school superintendents ... have been put through in the last several years.”

But Del. Herb McMillan said Hogan is doing the right thing.

“I like that he calls local officials into the Board of Public Works and calls them to account,” the Anne Arundel County Republican said. “That’s what the people of the state of Maryland elected him to do.”

In addition to his push for faster air-conditioning, Franchot has openly criticized Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, a Democratic rival, contending he has failed to act quickly enough to replace Dulaney and Lansdowne high schools.

The comptroller’s advocacy has won him friends in those communities, but many lawmakers have expressed opposition to his intervention in the decisions made by the local elected officials who have to set spending priorities.

Meanwhile, Franchot has accused lawmakers of politicizing school decisions and eliminating transparency from the process.

“Marylanders deserve and expect better from their elected officials,” Franchot said in a tweet.

Miller, who led that chamber in its 29-15 override vote, said the school construction process has become overly politicized.

“Public schools need to be based on meritocracy,” the Calvert County Democrat said.

Miller slammed Franchot for taking to social media to target two conservative Democrats who voted for the override, Sen. James Mathias of Worcester County and Sen. Kathy Klausmeier of Baltimore County.

“The comptroller targeted two members of the Senate and had people call them and threaten them,” Miller said from the podium.

In a speech on the Senate floor, Mathias defended his decision, calling it the right thing to do.

The Senate president noted that Mathias had been a staunch ally of Franchot on the issue of starting school after Labor Day.

“It’s just an example of him turning on his own.” Miller said.

Franchot’s chief of staff, Len Foxwell, said Miller’s “relationship with the facts is growing more tenuous every day.” He said the comptroller had simply urged senators to do the right thing.

“Peter likes both lawmakers and has enjoyed a productive relationship with them through the years,” Foxwell said.

Currently the five-member Interagency Committee on School Construction, known as the IAC, makes recommendations regarding the allocation of state dollars for construction and renovation of K-12 buildings. Generally the Board of Public Works follows those recommendations. But Hogan and Franchot have been more active in questioning the IAC’s actions than their immediate predecessors.

The legislation turns those decisions over to a reconstituted IAC that is now designated as an interagency commission. It will have nine members — the state school superintendent, four gubernatorial appointees and two each chosen by the Senate president and House speaker. The balance of power is roughly the same as on the current committee.

In 2016, following an especially acrimonious board meeting in which Hogan and Franchot dismissed the committee’s work, longtime IAC executive director David G. Lever resigned in protest.

Sen. Bill Ferguson, the Baltimore Democrat who led the floor fight for the override, pointed to Lever’s resignation letter criticizing the board for its treatment of local school officials.

Quoting from Lever’s letter, Ferguson said: “I find I cannot be a party to this degradation of a school construction program that I have worked hard to advance in professionalism and comprehensiveness.”

“We are creating a process that is fair and is transparent and will expedite projects we really know are necessary,” Ferguson added.

While the law seeks to end the annual “begathon,” it is unclear whether the board will try to keep it alive in some form. The legislature previously sought to end the practice with budget language, but the board paid scant attention.

A Hogan spokeswoman repeated the governor’s determination to force a repeal of the bill.

“Until that happens, all options are on the table,” she said.

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