The General Assembly is aiming to force the state to settle a long-running lawsuit by Maryland’s historically black universities, which contend that for decades, higher education policy undermined the institutions and stacked the deck in favor of historically white schools.
Legislation backed by House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne A. Jones would set aside $577 million in additional funding for the state’s four HBCUs — Coppin State and Morgan State universities in Baltimore, Bowie State University and the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore — over the next decade to resolve the lawsuit, which dates to 2006.
The General Assembly passed a nearly identical bill last year with overwhelming support. But it was derailed by a veto from Gov. Larry Hogan and the coronavirus pandemic, which forced lawmakers to end their annual legislative session nearly three weeks early.
This time, Jones and other top legislative Democrats say Hogan’s veto pen won’t stop their efforts to force a settlement. Jones told The Baltimore Sun that she hopes Hogan has a change of heart, but if there’s another veto, she expects to have plenty of votes to override it. The House passed the $577 million proposal last year 129-2, and it sailed through the Senate on a 45-0 vote.
“It’s rare for the legislature to step into ongoing litigation. However, we have now been litigating and mediating for years,” Jones told the House Appropriations Committee at a hearing Tuesday. “We have lost time for tens of thousands of students waiting for the legal process to resolve itself. We need to act now to level the playing field for all students, regardless of background or race or college they attend, and end this case for the betterment of every student.”
If lawmakers pass the bill early in this year’s 90-day session — as the speaker vows they will — state law would require Hogan to make a veto decision within six days. Assuming the pandemic doesn’t again cut the session short, that would leave plenty of time to line up votes for an override.
“We were optimistic the last time when it passed overwhelmingly and the governor vetoed it,” said Michael D. Jones, an attorney representing the universities. “But the thing that we could not have foreseen was that COVID would prevent the legislature from coming back and overriding the veto.”
The lawsuit has its origins in a 2005 state decision to launch a joint master of business administration program at Towson University and the University of Baltimore, a potential source of competition for an existing MBA program at Morgan State.
In 2013, U.S. District Judge Catherine Blake ruled in favor of the HBCUs on a key claim: Maryland’s actions to duplicate academic programs had perpetuated segregation by allowing nearby public universities to lure away students who might otherwise have enrolled at an HBCU.
But negotiations over a settlement have failed repeatedly in the years since, despite numerous attempts at mediation and stern prodding from the courts.
In 2019, a panel of judges on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals again urged both sides to strike a deal, writing that battling over a potential court-imposed remedy likely would mean “endless years of acrimonious, divisive and expensive litigation that will only work to the detriment of higher education in Maryland.”
The governor’s office and the historically Black universities have remained far apart on just how much the state might have to spend.
The state initially proposed spending $50 million on marketing, on-campus multicultural centers and scholarships. Under Hogan, who took office in 2015, the state gradually upped that figure, eventually reaching what the governor’s counsel termed a “final offer” of $200 million in 2019.
Those offers have been quickly rejected by backers of the HBCUs, who note they fall well short of what a court-drafted plan might cost. The proposed court order doesn’t include a price tag, but estimates put it well above the $577 million package the General Assembly is backing.
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Jon Greenbaum, chief counsel for the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which has helped represent the HBCUs in the case since 2009, said Maryland’s executive branch has “never really made a serious offer to settle the case.”
Mike Ricci, Hogan’s spokesman, credited the governor for opening settlement talks after taking office in 2015 and for raising state funding for Maryland’s HBCUs to “record levels” during his tenure.
The coalition of HBCUs initially proposed the $577 million figure. Attorneys for the universities said passing the funding bill would set the stage for ending the lawsuit, leaving them largely just to hammer out the wording of a final agreement with lawyers for the state.
The proposed legislation this year also would add a provision guaranteeing that none of the four HBCUs would see their annual state funding dip below $9 million, a particular concern of Coppin State, where already declining enrollment plunged again amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Del. Darryl Barnes, a Prince George’s County Democrat and the chair of the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland, which has pushed a legislative solution to the legal stalemate, called the money “desperately needed” to recruit students to HBCUs and give them the resources to compete with historically white institutions.
“It’s my hope that the governor sees his responsibility and the sense of urgency in settling this,” Barnes said. “Should the governor veto it, we’ll have enough time before the legislature ends to make sure we override it.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.