Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, the governor's point man on legislation governing public-private partnerships, said Wednesday that the administration will not risk the measure's defeat over a controversial amendment that could change the rules for appeals in a lawsuit challenging the State Center redevelopment plan in Baltimore.
Brown said the amendment, tacked on the bill in the House Environmental Matters Committee, did not come from the administration. "We neither oppose it nor promote it," he said. "This is not an administration amendment.
The amendment would expedite the appeals process for litigants in cases involving public-private partnerships (P3s) and would apply to current cases. It has drawn cries of foul from the downtown business owners who are challenging the $1 billion redevelopment plan for the aging state office complex near Bolton Hill.
The amendment was the target of criticism during debate over the weekend on the House floor, where the amended bill passed 81-52.
The bill has now moved to the Senate. Brown said that while the administration doesn't object to the amendment, it is unwilling to see the broader bill -- the product of a commission he chaired -- dragged down by the dispute over expedited legal review.
"We don't want any amendment to cause the defeat of this bill," he said. Brown said he didn't know which outside "stakeholder groups or interest groups" might have been behind the amendment.
The amendment is just a small part of a complicated 24-page bill in the administration's legislative agenda. Among other things, the legislation sets out a process under which the state would evaluate and award contracts in P3 deals, in which a private company typically invests in improving a state-owned asset in return for sharing in the long-term returns under a lease agreement. Such deals are becoming increasingly important nationwide as government leaders have run into resistance from lawmakers to raising public revenue for expensive capital projects.
The original amendment would have allowed for a direct appeal of Circuit Court rulings to the Court of Appeals. It was offered in the environmental committee by Del. James Malone, a Baltimore County Democrat who is vice chair of the panel. Malone did not return calls seeking an answer to the question of what prompted him to offer the amendment.
Del. Maggie McIntosh, chairwoman of the committee, said she didn't know who was seeking the amendment, but she defended it as a means of speeding the resolution of cases in which the state could have important projects at stake.
"It just acts as a time frame for court decisions," said McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat. "It doesn't impact outcome at all."
McIntosh said an amendment change adopted on the floor at the suggestion of the House Judiciary Committee drops the original amendment's language allowing a direct appeal to the Court of Appeals, the state's highest court. Under the change, an appeal from a Circuit Court ruling would follow the normal course from the Circuit Court to the Court of Special Appeals.
That would answer one of two objections raised by the Maryland State Bar Association, which opposed bypassing the intermediate court. However, it does not deal with the association's opposition to the retroactive provisions that would apply the expedited appeals process to existing P3 litigation.
Alan Rifkin, lead attorney for a group of downtown business owners who are challenging the State Center project, said the retroactivity process unfairly changes the rules for a pending dispute.
"To target a particular case is an affront to the judicial integrity of the process," Rifkin said. His clients, bankrolled in part by Orioles owner and downtown building owner Peter G. Angelos, claim the state awarded the development contract for State Center without proper competition. The group has already won some of the early legal skirmishes in the suit, including the trial judge's decision to throw out a countersuit brought by the state. That decision, Rifkin said, is one that could be put on a fast track for an appeal if the bill is adopted in its current form.
If that happens, he said, his clients would challenged the constitutionality of the amendment.
"It has every attribute of a special law that targets a particular proceeding, and special laws are inherently unconstitutional," he said.
Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, the Howard County Democrat who chairs the Senate Budget & Taxation Committee, said he was not familiar enough with the House amendments to comment on the bills.
"I have to look at all the implications of the retroactive aspects of it," he said. Kasemeyer said a work group from his panel will take up the legislation in the next few days.