The General Assembly adopted a capital budget Wednesday that would cut Gov. Larry Hogan out of the process of approving the state's school construction plans.
The House of Delegates and state Senate gave final approval to revised version of the governor's nearly $1.1 billion capital budget, which funds building projects.
Lawmakers approved $285 million for public school construction but added a provision that eliminates the role of the Board of Public Works in reviewing the statewide spending plan approved by the Interagency Committee on School Construction (IAC).
That provision diminishes the role of the governor, who chairs the board that also includes the comptroller and treasurer.
If the measure is enacted, it would be one of several actions the Assembly's dominant Democrats have taken or are likely to take that would trim the powers of Hogan, a Republican. Other bills would allow the attorney general to sue the federal government without getting the governor's permission and transfer the power to make some appointments to other officials.
Sen. Ed DeGrange, who chairs the Senate's capital budget subcommittee, said the IAC should have the final say on how school construction funds are allocated.
"The IAC has an expertise in these projects, they review this," the Anne Arundel County Democrat said. "This is where we're putting our trust."
Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer called the move "absolutely outrageous."
"We think it's very possibly unconstitutional and could possibly be challenged in court," Mayer said.
"This is an attempt to give one-third of the capital budget to an unelected, unaccountable group of folks, one of whom is a lobbyist, and completely remove the state's oversight over hundreds of millions of dollars," he added.
Spokesman Joe Shapiro said Comptroller Peter Franchot is "troubled" by the legislature's decision to remove the board's oversight power.
"Whatever the political objectives of the General Assembly were, they work to the detriment of Maryland's students, teachers and families," Shapiro said.
The IAC is a five-member body chaired by state school Superintendent Karen B. Salmon and made up of two of the governor's cabinet secretaries and one member each appointed by the Senate president and the speaker of the House. Mayer identified the lobbyist as John L. Bohanan Jr., a former delegate appointed by Speaker Michael E. Busch.
Bohanan, a senior consultant at Cornerstone Government Affairs in Annapolis, is not a registered lobbyist in Maryland. While some of his associates lobby, Bohanan said he has not done such work.
Hogan — in alliance with Franchot, a Democrat — used the Board of Public Works' review power in May 2016 to withhold $5 million from Baltimore and $10 million from Baltimore County to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with their school systems' schedule for air-conditioning classrooms. Democratic Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp objected.
The governor and comptroller were attempting to pressure those systems to install portable air-conditioning units before the current school year started. School system leaders said it made more sense to wait and complete projects to equip all schools with central air conditioning.
The board decided in February to reinstate the full $5 million to the city and half of the money it withheld from the county. Hogan and Franchot expressed satisfaction with the city's progress but less enthusiasm for the steps taken by the county.
In a conference committee of lawmakers, members of the House Appropriations and Senate Budget & Taxation committees decided to restore the $5 million still withheld from Baltimore County.
"It was a stunt by the governor that did nothing to help young people get better-quality schools," said Montgomery County Democratic Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., vice chairman of the Budget & Taxation Committee.
The legislature also allocated $5 million from the IAC's reserve funds for air-conditioning projects in city schools.
By removing the public works board from an oversight role on school construction, lawmakers would end any reason for holding the annual "begathon" — a winter ritual in which school and local officials from around the state appear before the board to justify their construction requests.
The legislature attempted last year to put an end to the practice, which fell out of favor under Gov. Martin O'Malley, but didn't end the board's oversight role. Hogan insisted that the begathon continue this year.
The governor has the power to veto line items in the capital budget, but the legislature can override those vetoes. By completing their work on the bill this week, the Assembly's Democratic leaders have ensured they will have time to hold override votes before the session ends April 10.
The $1.065 billion capital budget exceeds Hogan's request of $995 million by $70 million, but DeGrange said the outlay still remains within the limits set by the legislature's Spending Affordability Committee.
Mayer criticized the increase.
"Maryland debt payments have skyrocketed over the last decade," he said. "We've made good progress in the recent past and we need that to continue."
The budget includes several big-ticket items the governor did not include in his capital proposal.
Perhaps the most controversial is $4 million toward what eventually would be a state commitment of at least $15 million to a new hotel-convention center in downtown Frederick.
Hogan had proposed cancelling authorization for the project, which Republican senators led by Frederick County's Michael J. Hough criticized as a wasteful subsidy for a risky venture. But Sen. Ron Young, a Democrat whose district includes the city of Frederick, presented the project as a catalyst for economic development.
Lawmakers also added $8 million toward a $60 million renovation of Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, and $5 million for environmental cleanup at the old Rosewood Center in Baltimore County.