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Miller says higher education nominee could face rocky confirmation

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller predicted Wednesday that Gov. Larry Hogan's nominee to head the Maryland Higher Education Commission could face a rocky confirmation process.

At the same time, Miller said he intends to vote to approve Hogan's nominee as transportation secretary, whose appointment has raised questions among some Democratic senators.

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Miller did not elaborate on the reasons that Jennie C. Hunter-Cevera could face problems in her confirmation as higher education secretary, but Senate sources said some senators were not impressed by her record as president of the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute and executive director of the Technology Development Corp. (TEDCO).

Hunter-Cevera faces a Senate confirmation hearing March 9.

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Sen. Jamie Raskin, the Montgomery County Democrat who chairs the Senate Executive Nominations Committee, declined to discuss Hunter-Cevera's qualifications but said some of the concerns relate to the agency itself.

"In this case, one of the headwinds she's facing is a general disgruntlement with the state of the commission," Raskin said.

Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer said Hunter-Cevera is highly qualified and  has the governor's full support. "

"She has been instrumental in building a strong foundation of highly productive faculty at Maryland universities who have aggressively gone after federal grants for important research projects," Mayer said.  "The majority of those faculty members remain in place today and she can be credited with the creation of more than a dozen new companies during her time at UMBI."

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Miller said he expects Pete Rahn, Hogan's choice to lead the Maryland Department of Transportation, to be confirmed despite concerns about a deal he struck when he was transportation chief in New Mexico to build a state highway using private funds.

The Senate president's endorsement was tepid, however.

"He built a very controversial road in New Mexico but it was 15 years ago," he said.

Miller as referring to a highway in northwestern New Mexico for which Rahn forged one of the nation's first public-private partnerships and financed it with borrowing against future federal funding.

The contract was awarded without competition to a subsidiary of Koch Industries, whose owners have emerged as large Republican donors on a national scale, though the firm had never built a highway before. Because of a clause in that agreement, the state ultimately had to pick up millions of dollars in repair costs.

Miller said the involvement of Koch Industries did not trouble him but the sole-source contract did.

"It raised a lot of questions, but he did what the governor told him to do," Miller said.

Miller said his lingering concern about Rahn is that while he has a background in building roads, he does not have much experience in running ports, airports or transit systems -- all of which fall under the Maryland transportation secretary.

Rahn faced skeptical questioning at his confirmation hearing Monday. The committee decided to postpone a vote on his nomination and call him back for more inquiries next Monday.

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