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Transportation proposal headed for late-session veto fight

A protracted debate in the Maryland Senate Wednesday offered a glimpse into a fight that will escalate in Annapolis over the next week — one that's far more about political power and hurt feelings than it is about policy.

For more than 90 minutes, Republicans tried to poke holes in a bill that would require the state to come up with a way to rank and score costly transportation projects. Democrats employed a seldom-used maneuver to put and end to the day's debate and curtail future discussion on Thursday.

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The policy question — whether the proposal would create more transparency or would subsume local decision-making — has become overshadowed by the partisan political fight over power.

"The whole bill is in retaliation for the governor canceling the Red Line" in Baltimore, said Minority Whip Sen. Steve Hershey, an Eastern Shore Republican.

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The GOP senators were trying to slow down progress of the bill so that it wouldn't land on Gov. Larry Hogan's desk by Friday, forcing the governor to sign or veto the law before lawmakers adjourn for the year. If they're unsuccessful in derailing that timeline, lawmakers could vote to override the governor's veto before the session ends on April 11.

At the end of debate Wednesday, Republicans as much as conceded defeat.

"This session began with vetoes, and it'll end with vetoes," Hershey said.

After more than an hour of often repetitive questioning about the bill, Democratic Sen. Joanne Benson had enough. She called the debate "foolishness," drawing a rebuke from Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who promised she would apologize the next day.

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"Apologize for what?" Benson, who is from Prince George's County, said afterward. "We don't have time for foolishness down here. … I've been here for 25 years, and I want you to know that I know foolishness when I see it."

With just 11 days left in the 2016 session, the transportation scoring bill has emerged as the most partisan and contentious proposal of legislative season — and the one most likely to come down to the wire.

Democrat Sen. Guy Guzzone of Howard County defended the transportation scoring bill as a way to explain to the public how the administration decides which projects gets a share of the state's annual transportation budget, which is more than $5 billion a year.

"What we're trying to do is give the public more information, and that's all there is to it," Guzzone said.

Hogan and Republicans have attacked Democrats over the proposal, launching a social media campaign that told people their representatives were trying to put end to transportation projects in their neighborhoods.

Hogan's spokesman Douglass Mayer, who watched the Senate debate with a half dozen senior administration staffers, issued a statement Thursday that "claiming this bill is about 'transparency' is total hogwash and today's floor debate perfectly illustrates the lengths the majority leadership of the Senate will go to ram it through the chamber without a proper hearing or any meaningful consideration."

Debate will resume Thursday, but a motion passed 30-15 on a largely party line vote limited discussion to a total of an hour, with a half-hour reserved for each side.

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