During a tour of Baltimore County on Friday, Sen. Chris Van Hollen touted legislation he’s supported in 2019, talked about the need for infrastructure investment, and answered constituent questions and concerns on federal issues.
Before taking questions from dozens of gathered residents in the Randallstown Community Center, Van Hollen mentioned two pieces of legislation — the Rebuild America’s Schools Act and the Keep Our PACT Act, both of which he’s co-sponsored — to secure more funding for school construction, Title I schools and special education programs.
The Rebuild America’s Schools Act would disperse $100 billion in federal funding to schools nationwide. It was introduced to the Senate in late January and sits with the Finance Committee.
The Keep Our PACT (Promise to America’s Children and Teachers) Act was introduced to move Congress toward meeting its funding obligation for Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act on a mandatory basis for the next 10 years. That bill was introduced in the Senate in mid-April.
Van Hollen said he was disappointed that Maryland lawmakers this year failed to pass a funding bill for local schools.
“I think the number one priority of the state needs to be investing in our schools. Both in the classrooms, in teachers and students, and in school construction issues,” Van Hollen said in an interview after his event in Randallstown.
That’s why, he said, he’s working on the bills to move education funding from the federal level.
He called the recommendations coming from the Kirwan Comission “the most important policy being put forward” and said his bills would provide federal money for some of those priorities. T
The Red Line, a transit project that was planned to connect Woodlawn in the west to Bayview in the east and quashed by Gov. Larry Hogan in 2015, came up during the question-and-answer session of the Randallstown event when somebody asked about infrastructure.
Van Hollen, a Democrat, said the project being killed was “a great loss” and that Hogan, a Republican, pulling the plug on it was “a huge mistake.”
When it comes to transportation, Van Hollen said the federal government’s main job is to set broad policy and distribute money for local projects. By not continuing with the Red Line, he said, Hogan left hundreds of millions of federal dollars up for grabs that other states were able to take advantage of instead.
“We’re off the list,” Van Hollen said. “When there’s a consensus in the state of Maryland for moving forward, we can start the process again. But I don’t want to kid people, it’s a long and arduous process ... the governor lost an important opportunity.”
Hogan has previously called the Red Line a “boondoggle” and shifted state investment from mass transit projects to road projects.
In an emailed response, Mike Ricci, the governor’s communications director, said "This is a laughable comment from a member of Congress who hasn’t been able to get any kind of major infrastructure bill done for the umpteen years he’s been down there.
“We always welcome forward-looking conversations with the senator, especially if he’s interested in helping us fix the Baltimore-Washington Parkway,” Ricci said.
Speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates Adrienne Jones said in an interview that the Red Line would have been “an economic engine for the area” and said she thought that, when it comes to the next gubernatorial election in the state, folks would consider a candidate’s potential support for a transit project in the Baltimore area when it comes time to vote.
“But in terms of transportation ... you know, with the current governor, nothing’s going to happen," Jones said.
Infrastructure projects came up later in the day, when Van Hollen was in Towson.
Nancy Hafford, director of the Towson Chamber of Commerce, said Friday that for Towson businesses, addressing aging infrastructure is a top priority.
Van Hollen told the chamber that investing in infrastructure is a challenge even though there is bipartisan support, but “the missing link has been revenue.”
Increasing the fuel tax, for instance, is one proposal that members of Congress disagree on. The senator said he is proposing eliminating tax breaks for companies that move overseas, using the savings to invest in infrastructure.
Specific infrastructure priorities for Maryland include repairing bridges and building infrastructure resilient to climate change, Van Hollen said.
Also during his Randallstown event, Van Hollen fielded questions on the upcoming census, his support for Democratic candidates running for president, and investigating and impeaching President Donald Trump.
The senator celebrated the fact that Trump has decided, after a lengthy and public court battle, to not ask citizenship status on the census, and encouraged everyone in attendance to be sure to fill out their census form.
“All of us should encourage everybody to sign up and to fill out their census forms, because we want to help every single person in Baltimore County, or city in the state of Maryland,” he said.
Van Hollen said that the upcoming testimony of Robert Mueller, the special counsel who investigated Trump and declined to clear him of obstruction of justice, would be “an important step” in congressional oversight.
The House of Representatives itself voting to impeach Trump does not remove the president from office, Van Hollen said, so there is a need to “keep an eye on 2020.”
The senator declined to throw his support behind any of the Democratic candidates running for president, instead saying he wants to see how the campaigns play out.