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Citing economic hit from coronavirus, Gov. Hogan vetoes legislation to improve Maryland schools, allows Pimlico bill to become law

Today is the deadline for Gov. Larry Hogan to decide whether or not to veto a number of bills that would increase state spending, including plans to expand school funding and school construction and a bill to renovate Pimlico racetrack.
Today is the deadline for Gov. Larry Hogan to decide whether or not to veto a number of bills that would increase state spending, including plans to expand school funding and school construction and a bill to renovate Pimlico racetrack.(Brian Witte/AP)

Citing the massive hit on Maryland’s economy from the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Larry Hogan on Thursday vetoed several pieces of high-profile legislation that required additional spending ― including a sweeping overhaul of the state’s public schools and a funding increase to address inequities at historically black colleges and universities.

The Republican governor, however, allowed legislation authorizing a rebuild of the Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore to become law without his signature.

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“The General Assembly passed a number of bills worthy of consideration, but COVID-19 has caused sudden and unprecedented economic turmoil," Hogan said in a statement. “The impact from COVID-19 on state and local budgets, on small businesses, and on struggling Marylanders is devastating and is potentially worse than anything since the Great Depression.”

Hogan’s vetoes ― which include legislation that would provide funding for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and to fight crime in the city ― were met with swift condemnation from legislative leaders.

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The governor’s veto of a $4 billion-a-year plan from the so-called Kirwan Commission to improve the state’s public schools means that another bill on school construction will not go into effect. A provision of the “Built to Learn Act," which provides $2.2 billion in extra funding for school construction, says it will not take effect until the Kirwan bill becomes law.

“While we are in the midst of a public health and economic crisis of an extraordinary magnitude, stopping progress on education and school construction puts us even further behind," said House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, a Democrat. "We know that there are students across this state that are losing millions of hours of learning. The result of this shortsighted action is Maryland will continue to graduate students that are not ready for the real world.”

The governor’s vetoes can delay implementation of bills, but Democrats in Maryland have long had enough legislative power to enact their agenda through veto overrides when the General Assembly meets again, typically in January. Jones said she and Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Democrat, would consider their next steps.

Should Democrats override the veto in January the governor’s action would have little lasting impact on the legislation because its early stages are already funded.

In a session that ran just 71 days rather than the usual 90, Democratic lawmakers passed most of their priorities before quickly adjourning in March before the outbreak of the coronavirus in the state worsened. Ferguson and Jones had proclaimed education their top priority and pushed through landmark school-focused legislation, including $580 million to aid the state’s four historically black colleges and universities to settle a long-standing lawsuit alleging underfunding.

Ferguson said he disagreed with Hogan’s vetoes, arguing some of those bills would help the state recover from the economic slowdown.

“Instead of setting us on a path to a secure recovery, the governor is stopping all progress where it stands,” Ferguson said. "The governor had a choice today to reject traditional politics and work together to adjust shared visions and build a strong future after this crisis. Instead, he chose to foreclose hope, leaving Maryland families and historically black colleges and universities with an open question for the future.”

The sweeping education reform bill, designed to restore the state’s public schools to among the best in the nation, was among the most hotly debated of the legislative session.

The Blueprint for Maryland’s Future includes a variety of programs designed to significantly improve public schools, ranging from offering expanded prekindergarten to children from poor families to paying teachers more to improving supports at schools with high concentrations of students from low-income households.

The programs were recommended by the Kirwan Commission, which studied ways to improve academic performance.

While six GOP senators voted for the legislation, House Republicans fought the proposals bitterly, arguing they would cost taxpayers $32 billion over 10 years without a clear way to pay for them.

Democrats agreed to amend the bill to halt the reforms in a bad economy or if they’re not working.

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Baltimore County elementary school teacher and Maryland State Education Association President Cheryl Bost said Hogan’s veto of the Kirwan legislation is hopefully but a speed bump to its enactment.

“The governor’s veto is a disappointing but hopefully temporary setback," said Bost, the teachers’ union president. "We urge the overwhelming number of legislators from both parties who voted for the Blueprint to override the veto at the next session of the legislature so we can deliver the support to our students that they desperately need.”

William E. “Brit” Kirwan, who chaired the commission whose work led to the bill, said he was “very disappointed” the governor vetoed the bill.

He said the closure of school buildings due to the coronavirus pandemic has underscored the need to improve public schools. Kirwan, who is a former University System of Maryland chancellor and math professor, said the veto sends “an unfortunate message” that education is not a priority.

“Who has suffered in this period?” he asked. “A lot of people have, including children whose educational opportunities have been severely impacted. What an opportunity that has now been missed to send a signal that education matters.”

Hogan also vetoed new taxes Democrats had designed to pay for the school proposals, including proposed levies on digital advertising, digital downloads and vaping, and an increase to the tax on tobacco. Together, the taxes would raise more than $400 million a year, analysts say, and pay for the first five years of implementing the school improvements.

Rebecca Snyder, director the MDDC Press Association, and others thanked the governor in a statement for vetoing the tax on digital advertising, which she said would hurt local media companies.

“This legislation would have hobbled businesses who are already on the ropes due to the COVID-19 outbreak," Snyder and advocates for digital advertising companies wrote.

Hogan also vetoed legislation to send more resources to the city to fight crime, blocking a bill to provide about $12 million to Baltimore for law enforcement in 10 high-crime “microzones," mandate increased oversight of offenders on parole or probation, and authorize state police traffic patrols to free up city officers to investigate crimes. Another bill he vetoed would mandate spending on violence-interruption programs, such as Safe Streets or Roca.

“I’m disappointed. We had some good proposals that we sent to the governor’s desk,” said Del. Luke Clippinger, a Baltimore Democrat who is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. “A lot of the bills he vetoed would have had an impact on crime in a holistic manner. We need resources on the ground in our most violent neighborhoods."

The governor also vetoed legislation that would have given $5.5 million in state aid to the financially struggling Baltimore Symphony Orchestra over five years. The BSO’s management and players said even without additional aid from the state, their multiyear plan to achieve financial stability is not doomed.

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The Symphony wasn’t scheduled to receive the first, $1.5 million installment of funds until Sept. 1, 2021. That gives the orchestra 15 months to either persuade legislators to override the governor’s veto or to come up with an alternate plan.

“We understand the hesitation to move forward at this time due to the unprecedented uncertainty surrounding COVID-19,” Peter Kjome, the BSO’s president and CEO wrote in an email. “We are hopeful that there will be an opportunity for a different outcome when the General Assembly reconvenes.”

The governor did, however, permit the bill to become law that is aimed at facilitating redevelopment of Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore and the Laurel Park track.

It authorizes the Maryland Stadium Authority to issue up to $375 million in bonds, which would be paid back through casino proceeds already earmarked to subsidize the racing industry and through the Maryland Lottery.

“This is truly a defining moment in the history of the Maryland thoroughbred racing industry and the state, and we are most appreciative,” said Alan M. Rikin, attorney for the Maryland Jockey Club and Preakness Stakes.

Hogan’s vetoes come as he’s imposed a budget freeze while the state continues to respond to the coronavirus pandemic that has infected nearly 30,000 Marylanders. More than 1,300 people have died in the state.

In one worst-case scenario developed by the comptroller’s office, the state could lose out on $2.8 billion in expected revenue by the end of June if the governor’s stay-at-home order remains in place that long.

Maryland saw another jump in unemployment claims last week as nearly 110,000 residents filed for assistance after the state allowed independent contractors and gig workers to file for the aid late last month.

“Given these challenges, it would be irresponsible to allow legislation that requires increasing spending to become law,” Hogan said.

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