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Baltimore Sun: Maryland Senate set to revamp school construction funding process, angering Gov. Larr

The Maryland Senate gave preliminary approval Wednesday night to a plan to strip the state’s spending panel of its traditional oversight of hundreds of millions of dollars in school construction projects — a legislative action that Gov. Larry Hogan called a “personal vendetta” and promised to veto.

The Republican governor — who sits on the three-member spending board with Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy Kopp, both Democrats — said the General Assembly’s expedited actions on a measure to strip the board of one of its “most important functions” were “simply outrageous.”

At Wednesday morning’s Board of Public Works meeting, Hogan said legislation passed by the House of Delegates this week and then rapidly moved to the Senate’s vote Wednesday night was driven by lawmakers’ anger at Franchot for using the board’s authority to question local school officials about their spending decisions.

“It’s politics and it’s a personal vendetta against my colleague, the comptroller,” Hogan said.

But whether the Senate could override Hogan’s promised veto took a strange twist as Sen. Nathaniel Oaks told Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller he was resigning at 9 a.m. Thursday. Oaks is facing federal bribery charges and is scheduled to appear in U.S. District Court two hours after his resignation takes effect. It’s not clear whether there are enough votes to override a veto.

The House tacked the proposed change via an amendment to a popular bill that seeks to modernize other aspects of the state’s school construction funding process. The amendment calls for taking away the board’s final authority over school construction projects and giving it to reconstituted version of the current Interagency Committee on School Construction, which now allocates state money but answers to the public works board.

Hogan characterized the legislators’ action as an attempt to “sneak in an amendment at the end of the legislative session without any hearings.”

The proposed commission would not answer to voters like the board does, Hogan noted. The existing five-member committee, which would be reconfigured as the commission, includes two of his cabinet members, the state school superintendent and two appointees of the Senate president and the House speaker.

The new Interagency Commission on School Construction would have nine members — four appointed by the governor, four by legislative leaders and the state school superintendent.

An expanded commission that does not answer to the Board of Public Works could turn into a group of “lobbyists, political donors and people with conflicts of interest,” Hogan said. Franchot was even more scathing in his remarks, taking direct aim at Del. Maggie McIntosh, floor manager for the school construction bill.

McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat, had criticized the Board of Public Works for its 2016 decision to withhold $5 million from the city school system to force it to accelerate its plans to equip all schools with air conditioning. The move contributed to the city school district’s inability to fix its heating systems before a recent cold snap led to freezing classrooms, McIntosh said.

“It’s amazing really to hear a legislator from Baltimore City continue to provide political cover to the city schools officials who failed to do their jobs and have the audacity to blame this board for the heating crisis that transpired earlier this year,” said Franchot, a former state delegate. “I’m just saying it was a lie told to my former colleagues down on the floor.”

Hogan said the change would close the process to the public. But McIntosh said the new commission would be transparent: It would be required to hold meetings in a room at the state Department of Education equipped for online broadcasting.

McIntosh said the change is necessary because the Board of Public Works has engaged repeatedly in actions she believes undermined local school systems’ ability to develop projects.

“This was becoming a pattern,” McIntosh said in an interview. “We thought it was important to take politics out of school construction money.”

McIntosh also dismissed accusations that the legislature was using schoolchildren as pawns and that she lied about the bill, saying flatly: “I don’t lie. I just don’t lie.”

“They used the students as pawns — that’s why they are getting this reaction,” McIntosh said.

The bill needs a formal, final approval but can be sent to the governor with enough time remaining in the session to override Hogan’s promised veto — if Miller can get enough votes.

Republicans protested the legislative pace by Democrats.

“It is flying at ludicrous speed. The question is, why?” said Minority Leader J. B. Jennings, a Republican who represents Baltimore and Harford counties. “It’s not about the issue of school funding. It’s about a political vendetta and that is wrong.”

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