Road kill whopper

Are Maryland voters really going to fall for a 'road kill' fraud?

Like any good dancer, actor or used car salesman, Gov. Larry Hogan has a "move." It's just a bit more elaborate than a feather step, a raised eyebrow or a pitch for $200 undercoating. His is the "straw man" — a distortion of reality that allows him to vigorously attack, knock down and refute something that doesn't even exist.

First, there was the "rain tax," a requirement that provided the state's largest jurisdictions with the means to meet federally mandated targets to clean up the pollution that rolls down storm drains after it rains or snows. He called for a "repeal," and instead got the law changed so that while the same pollution must be cleaned up, a specific tax to finance those upgrades was strictly optional (a choice already provided by existing regulations, incidentally). He declared victory nonetheless.

Now comes another state law that he has grossly misrepresented. It requires that transportation projects be ranked by a scoring system that, among other things, requires the administration to show how any project promotes community vitality, economic prosperity, environmental stewardship, safety and security, system preservation and so forth. We never saw much need for the law, believing it to unnecessarily duplicate existing transportation planning requirements — but it's also strictly advisory. Governor Hogan or any other governor still retains authority to decide how transportation money shall be spent; the law merely requires him to publicly justify expenditures.

Ah, but there's the rub. The governor has chosen to make the law as unworkable as possible by drafting doomsday regulations that he claims would kill highway projects. He's even labeled the legislation on which the General Assembly already overrode his veto as the "road kill bill." He might as well have called it the "rain tax 2."

One can only marvel at the commitment to this alternative reality in which legislation that specifically gives the governor an out can be described as hand-tying. As the state attorney general's office advised lawmakers earlier this year, projects with lower scores can still be funded if the transportation department "provides, in writing, a rational basis for the decision." In other words, it's all non-binding (unless the governor insists on "irrational" transportation projects — water slides, vacuum tubes, compressed air cannons perhaps — for which he might theoretically be stymied).

Now Governor Hogan has upped the ante further by declaring this week that repeal of the "road kill" bill will be his highest priority in the upcoming legislative session. Wow. Guess he doesn't have much of an agenda for his third year (normally, a governor's most productive, by the way). Here's our prediction: There is about a zero probability that lawmakers are backing down now.

That leaves the governor and his straw man strategy two possible plays. Either he goes forward and uses this authority to kill all those hundreds of millions of dollars in road construction projects he claims he must kill (a commitment to self-destructive role-playing one rarely witnesses in public office), or, more likely, he formulates some eleventh-hour reprieve for which he can take full credit (and which probably doesn't involve the General Assembly). After all, the point of having a straw man is not usually to allow the straw man to win.

Speculation by Democrats that this narrative also gives Mr. Hogan an opportunity to kill or perhaps delay highway projects that are currently underfunded due to lower-than-projected fuel tax revenues may or may not be true. Still, the observation made by the governor's spokesman that such talk is a triumph of the "tin-foil brigade" is itself a triumph of self-delusion, or at least acting with a Robert De Niro-in-"Raging Bull" level commitment to the role.

Maybe Mr. Hogan thinks that if a bogus rain tax argument could win him an election two years ago, then a bogus road kill campaign could win him re-election (not that he seems to need the help). But such a strategy presumes Maryland voters are a pretty gullible bunch. Donald Trump may have gotten far on a wave of "fake news" over facts, but we'd like to think Mr. Hogan aspires to better. The legislation's own author notes that all that is really at stake is "just a score." In other words, the law is closer to being a nothing-burger than a sign of the apocalypse, and average Marylanders are bound to get wise.

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