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Maryland Gov. Hogan vetoes bills that would require COVID plan for next 2 years, tighten rules for emergency purchasing

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed 30 bills Friday, including measures inspired by the coronavirus pandemic that would have tightened rules for emergency purchases by state officials and required the state to draw up a plan for handling the remainder of the pandemic.

He said the spending measures would do little to increase transparency and could delay and distract state officials when time was of the essence.

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He also vetoed a measure that would have dedicated hundreds of millions of dollars a year to needed transit system repairs.

The Republican governor issued a statement announcing the vetoes as he spent the day on the Eastern Shore promoting coronavirus vaccines and kicking off the start of the summer tourism season.

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He also allowed hundreds of bills to become law without his signature, many of them routine or technical measures.

When lawmakers convene their next legislative session — scheduled for January — they’ll consider whether to overturn Hogan’s post-session vetoes. Lawmakers must take a vote with a three-fifths majority in favor to override a veto. The vetoed bills largely passed the Democratic-majority General Assembly by veto-proof margins.

Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, said in a statement that he was “startled by the number of bipartisan bills” that were vetoed.

“We will evaluate each vetoed bill on its merits,” he said, “as we determine decisions on overrides with senators and House leadership.”

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Emergency purchases scrutinized

Lawmakers in the Democrat-led General Assembly had passed a trio of bills aimed at increasing transparency related to state officials’ emergency financial decisions, an issue that emerged last year as the state scrambled to buy materials to fight the pandemic while trimming its budget.

Hogan came under fire for problematic deals, including the state’s $9 million purchase of coronavirus tests from a South Korean company that had to be replaced for an extra $2.5 million and a $12.5 million deal for masks and ventilators from a politically connected company that didn’t deliver the goods as quickly as the state expected.

One bill would have required the state to get a least three verbal estimates for emergency purchases and to weigh factors such as a company’s experience before making a deal. It also would have limited how much money the state could pay upfront for emergency purchases.

Another bill would have required the state to notify the legislature within 72 hours of making an emergency purchase or suspending any law or regulation during a state of emergency.

And a third bill vetoed by the governor would have limited midyear emergency budget cuts to 25% for certain state programs, and extended the required advance notice of proposed cuts from three to seven days.

Del. Kirill Reznik called the governor’s vetoes of the bills “tone deaf.”

Reznik, a Montgomery County Democrat who sponsored one of the bills, has asked state prosecutors to open a criminal investigation into the purchase of tests from the South Korean firm, LabGenomics.

He noted that the Hogan administration has been repeatedly late in reporting emergency contracts under current law.

“We spend billions of dollars a year through some form of procurement,” Reznik said, “and if we are not watching it, it can very easily spiral out of control and have a lot of waste, a lot of fraud and a lot of abuse.”

Pandemic planning

Hogan also vetoed the COVID-19 Testing, Contact Tracing and Vaccination Act of 2021.

It would have required the state to draw up a two-year plan for how to respond to the remainder of the pandemic and explain how it would finish equitably vaccinating Marylanders.

The bill would have required tens of millions of dollars in spending over the next two years to help local health departments, nursing homes, assisted living facilities and home health agencies with testing, contact tracing and vaccinations.

“These misguided bills would revert the state back to the early planning phases of Maryland’s COVID-19 pandemic response efforts by requiring the Maryland Department of Health (MDH) to redevelop its testing, contact tracing, and vaccination plans that have already been serving Marylanders effectively and saving lives for over a year,” the governor wrote in his veto message.

Lawmakers have repeatedly expressed concerns over the state’s handling of the pandemic, from how it reports data to its methods for distributing vaccines.

Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk, a chief sponsor of the bill, said in her written testimony for the bill that it would attack the pandemic from multiple angles.

“By introducing a systematic approach for testing, we can be better at getting individuals the appropriate treatment when necessary. By making contact tracing more efficient, we can mitigate the spread of the virus. By implementing a thorough plan for vaccine distribution, we can protect our residents who are most vulnerable,” wrote Peña-Melnyk, a Democrat representing areas of Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties.

Transit bills

Hogan had objected to the Transit Safety and Investment Act because it would have tied his hands — and the hands of future governors — in the budget process for the Maryland Department of Transportation.

The bill would have established minimum funding levels for mass transit in the state’s construction budget, with a goal of catching up on $2 billion worth of maintenance projects. This governor — and future governors through 2029 — would have had to set aside hundreds of millions of dollars each year for projects to improve the Maryland Transit Administration’s train and bus systems.

“Had this legislation been in place as the pandemic hit, MDOT would not have had the flexibility to shift funds and would have been forced to lay off valuable employees and/or further delay and even cancel critical projects across the state,” the governor wrote in his veto letter.

The bill also would have required the state to study extending its MARC commuter train system to Western Maryland and to award $2 million worth of grants to small businesses affected by construction of a light rail line in the Washington suburbs called the Purple Line.

“This is a setback for Maryland’s infrastructure, Maryland’s economy, and, most importantly, for the Marylanders who rely on the MTA to get to school, to work, to the pharmacy, and other places they need to go,” Sen. Cory McCray, a Baltimore Democrat, said in a statement Friday. He was one of the chief sponsors of the bill, along with fellow Baltimore Democrat Del. Brooke Lierman.

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Groups belonging to the Save Maryland Transit Coalition blasted Hogan’s veto, with the NAACP calling it “shortsighted” and the Sierra Club saying the governor is “out of step with what Marylanders in the 21st century need.”

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Hogan also vetoed a bill that would have required the state to spend $500,000 on marketing the Purple Line, calling it “premature.”

Work and taxes

The governor vetoed bills Friday that would have facilitated unionization efforts for certain employees, required higher wages for employees of public utilities working on underground projects and required higher wages for workers at companies receiving job creation tax credits in areas designated for revitalization.

Another veto nixed a bill that would have given local governments flexibility in setting local income tax rates, potentially allowing them to tax higher earners more than lower earners.

What’s next

Hogan’s actions mark a coda on the 2021 legislative session, which saw state lawmakers pass more than 800 measures.

In addition to the bills vetoed Friday, legislators will consider in their next session overriding vetoes from earlier this week of measures that would: limit state and local government cooperation with federal immigration enforcement, remove the governor’s role in deciding parole for prisoners serving life sentences and remove syringes from a criminal definition of drug paraphernalia.

Hundreds of bills previously got the signoff from the governor, including laws that: award more than $1 billion in pandemic financial aid and tax breaks, establish rules for the newly legal industry of gambling in sports, repeal the pro-Confederacy state song, allow bars and restaurants to continue offering carryout and delivery of alcohol, open the door to allowing college athletes to profit from endorsements, set rules for compensating those who’ve been wrongly imprisoned, and restructure the Maryland Environmental Service following a scandal over perks bestowed on its former director.

Other measures passed by lawmakers became law during the session after the legislature overrode Hogan’s vetoes, including policing reforms and accountability measures. Those laws overhaul the process for officers accused of misconduct, allow public scrutiny of disciplinary files and require officers to use force only when “proportional” and “necessary.”

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