A bitter fight between Gov. Larry Hogan and the Democratic leaders of the General Assembly — over a law governing how billions of state dollars will be spent on transportation projects — is flaring anew.
Hogan vehemently opposes the law, which creates a scoring system that could help determine which projects receive state funding. But the Republican administration had been pushing it into effect more quickly than lawmakers intended.
Democrats say the administration is misinterpreting the measure, which was enacted over the governor's veto. Their case was bolstered this week when the attorney general's office opined that the administration exceeded its authority when it told counties last month to submit extensive studies of their most coveted transportation projects or risk losing funding this year.
In a letter to Maggie McIntosh, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, Assistant Attorney General David W. Stamper said the law indicates the scoring process would be first applied in 2017.
A spokesman for Hogan said the administration would take a new look at the law in light of the legal opinion.
"If [lawmakers] don't want their own laws enforced, then we are more than willing to give this another look," spokesman Doug Mayer said. "I have no doubt they're praying that we do."
The legal opinion is a new step in a conflict that's been simmering since the early days of this year's legislative session.
McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat, said the administration's actions have nothing to do with implementing the law and everything to do with making the legislature look bad.
"This is, I think, MDOT trying to intimidate counties and say 'I told you so,'" McIntosh said. "It may be an attempt to get out of projects they overpromised."
House Minority Leader Nic Kipke, an Anne Arundel County Republican, accused Democrats of "rushing through this poorly drafted and ill-conceived legislation" to override an expected veto.
"Perhaps if they had paid attention to what they were actually voting for, instead of their unending quest to 'get the governor,' they could have passed legislation that actually benefited the citizens of our state instead of creating chaos when it comes to our counties' transportation needs," he said.
Department of Transportation spokeswoman Erin Henson noted that Stamper said the legislation "is not entirely clear" on when scoring should start, and there was a "possible interpretation" that it must begin this year.
Stamper went on to write that the "better interpretation" was that the scoring should start next year.
The Hogan administration had told local officials the law required it to implement the new scoring system for capacity-increasing projects this year, before regulations are written. The Department of Transportation wrote to each of Maryland's 24 jurisdictions last month that they had less than three weeks to provide information about their projects.
Stamper, who works in the office of the counsel to the General Assembly, told McIntosh the law imposes no new obligations on the counties to provide information.
"To the extent that MDOT is requiring local jurisdictions to submit this information it appears to be doing so as a matter of departmental policy, not because [the law] requires that it do so," Stamper wrote in a letter Wednesday.
Stamper also concluded that the administration is jumping the gun by assigning scores to transportation projects without first writing rules for doing so. He noted that the legislature gave the department a deadline of Jan. 1 to submit the rules.
Hogan fought the transportation scoring proposal at every turn as lawmakers considered it this year.
He and other administration officials predicted dire consequences for almost every county if it passed. He posted denunciations of the lawmakers who supported it on his Facebook page. When it passed on a largely party-line vote, he vetoed it.
Democrats, who have super-majorities in both the Senate and House, overrode the veto in April.
The conflict reopened with a July 28 letter in which Deputy Transportation Secretary James F. Ports Jr. told counties they must submit results of a dozen studies to the state by Monday.
Ports pointed out that the Hogan administration opposed the legislation. He said the law required the department to seek that information in time to include projects in this year's draft Comprehensive Transportation Program, due Sept. 1.
"Due to this legislation, projects previously funded in the CTP that receive low scores will be in jeopardy and could be de-funded," Ports wrote.
He urged counties to deliver the "required" information as soon as possible. The CTP is a six-year plan that is revised each year to account for state capital spending on all modes of transportation — from roads, to transit, to airports, to the Port of Baltimore.
Democrats in the legislature say the administration is deliberately misrepresenting the law to stoke fear among county officials that their projects will not be funded.
Del. Pam Beidle, the Anne Arundel County Democrat who sponsored the House version of the bill, noted that the letter went out just before the Maryland Association of Counties is scheduled to hold its annual summer convention next week in Ocean City.
"I can't imagine the conference is going to go by without a great amount of conversation about this topic," said Michael Sanderson, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties.
Henson said Ports' letter was "not clearly written," and said he later clarified that the department was requesting, not requiring, information.
She said no projects would be eliminated from consideration because they hadn't submitted information.
Ports followed up his original message with letters to some counties this week informing them that none of the projects within their borders qualify for funding under the preliminary scores assigned by the department.
In his letters, Ports listed several projects the governor has announced he would fund — such as the widening of Route 32 in Howard County — among those that would fail to make the cut under the department's scoring system.
His letters said the only projects that would be funded under the scoring system this year would be big-ticket ones in Prince George's, Montgomery and Howard counties — with nothing for the rest of the state.
The bill gives the department the authority to fund projects regardless of the score, as long it provides a rational explanation. McIntosh said the bill's purpose was to require the department "to be more transparent about how and why they make their decisions."
McIntosh said her committee would hold a hearing on the department's actions, probably in the early fall.