What's behind the Hogan-Miller-Busch-Franchot school construction cage match, and why you should care

Gov. Larry Hogan is sending out breathless screeds about Democrats’ backroom dealing. Comptroller Peter Franchot’s chief of staff is lighting his hair on fire on Facebook. House Speaker Michael E. Busch’s leadership team is tacking amendments onto legislation with the express intention of getting Governor Hogan to veto it — and to make it politically costly for him to do so. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller is pulling out all the procedural stops to ram that bill through in time so the legislature can override the governor before it adjourns next month. All this over two acronyms — BPW and IAC — that, unless you really pay attention to state government, probably mean nothing to you.

So who’s right and who’s wrong? In truth, nobody is really on the side of the angels here. There is an actual problem at the center of this fight about the way Maryland allocates school construction and renovation money, but it is getting completely lost in the politics.

In Maryland, the state plays an unusually large role in financing local school capital projects and has for decades. A group called the Interagency Committee on School Construction (known as the IAC) sets general policies and priorities for school construction funding, evaluates requests from local school systems and makes proposals for how state funds will be allocated. The IAC has five members — the state superintendent of schools, the state planning and general services secretaries, and one appointee each from the Senate president and House speaker. Because the governor does not have direct control to hire or fire the superintendent, the group is theoretically independent of any one faction’s control. Its recommendations go to the Board of Public Works, which has three members — the governor, the comptroller and the treasurer (who is appointed by the General Assembly) for approval, rejection or amendment.

The process has had its flaws for years, dating back at least to the time when William Donald Schaefer was comptroller and evinced an unseemly delight in seeing local officials trek to Annapolis to kiss the ring and beg for money. But things have gone particularly off the rails in the last few years as Mr. Franchot’s long-time obsession with interfering in local school construction prerogatives got a boost from his alliance with Governor Hogan. Suddenly, and over Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp’s objections, the BPW was doing things like voting to withhold millions from Baltimore city and county unless they met impossible and fiscally irresponsible demands to install window air conditioning before the start of the next school year.

Democrats in the General Assembly are absolutely right that the school construction process should not be politicized in that way, but they have responded with legislation that is itself politicized. Del. Maggie McIntosh, the Appropriations Committee chairwoman and a Baltimore Democrat, amended a school construction reform bill to strip the Board of Public Works out of the process and leave the decisions entirely in the hands of a revamped and expanded IAC — guaranteed veto bait for Mr. Hogan. To twist the knife, the amendments include the creation of the $10 million a year School Safety Grant Program, which would open the governor to criticism that he vetoed money to boost school security in the wake of the recent shootings in Parkland, Fla., and St. Mary’s County. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous wasted no time in pre-registering his outrage about the prospect of a Hogan veto, saying in an email Tuesday that “Larry Hogan still can't be shamed into finally doing the right thing for our kids.”

What’s interesting to note here is that the governor would arguably have more influence over school construction under the new system than the old. The Senate president and House speaker would each get to name two members of the new IAC, and the governor would name four, with the state superintendent (who answers to the state school board, which consists of gubernatorial appointees) taking the ninth spot. The governor would not then face the prospect of being outvoted at the BPW. The treasurer would still play a role in administering the school construction program under the new scheme. The only person who would be completely left out is the comptroller, which gives you an idea of who the legislature is really mad at. (To be clear, there are politics at play in this attempt to curtail Mr. Franchot but also legitimate reasons for the legislative branch to feel the need to check on an elected official who has gotten way outside of his lane.)

Our view is that the problem is not the structure, it’s the personalities and politics of the moment, and sooner or later, those will change. We objected strongly to the antics of the comptroller and the governor over the last four years, but we also believe the Board of Public Works plays an important role as an additional check on state expenditures, and we don’t like the idea of exempting hundreds of millions of dollars in annual spending from that process. The new bill does increase the transparency of the IAC (which is currently far more opaque than its import would warrant), but that’s still no substitute for vesting ultimate responsibility in officials who are answerable to the voters. For that reason, we think Governor Hogan should veto this bill and the legislature should let that action stand.

Which is a shame because it actually contains many worthwhile policy provisions. The IAC’s mission statement says it is supposed to “equalize educational facilities and opportunities throughout the state,” but it has not remotely done so. Maryland has formulas for school operating funding that attempt to do that, but not for capital spending. The legislation that has been hijacked by the IAC/BPW fight doesn’t fully correct that problem, but it authorizes a state-wide assessment of school infrastructure needs that nudges us in that direction. The bill also fixes quirks in state funding rules that have forced Baltimore City to return tens of millions to the state that would have been used to fix heating and air conditioning problems, and it increases the overall goal for state construction funding to $400 million a year, among other important reforms. One way or another, those things need to make it into law.

It’s an election year. We’ve got a Democratic legislature, a Republican governor and a Democratic comptroller whom the Democratic powers that be would love to get rid of but whom they couldn't get anybody to run against. Let’s leave decisions about how to oversee something as vital as school construction funding for a less politically charged environment.

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