By Len Lazarick
Maryland’s governor has long been considered one of the most powerful in the country, mainly because of his control over spending and appointments.
The Maryland General Assembly has for decades sought to chip away at any governor’s power, mainly through spending mandates and other legal restraints.
Last week’s action in the Senate and House to pass a new mandate on school construction and take the governor out of the decisions on what schools should be funded is just another chapter in that ongoing drive to shift the balance of power.
Removing the Board of Public Works from doling out the school construction money was ostensibly based on Comptroller Peter Franchot’s persistent cajoling of local public officials about hot classrooms, cold kids and crumbling buildings.
The legislators are certainly ticked at Franchot, but the real target is Gov. Larry Hogan, who often joined Franchot in lambasting superintendents, executives and even bureaucrats who worked directly for them.
Tears in their eyes
State Treasurer Nancy Kopp, the third member of the board, known for her civility, was often embarrassed by their behavior. On Wednesday, after Franchot and Gov. Larry Hogan ranted about the attempt to take them out of the school funding process, Kopp politely pointed out how their actions had triggered the move by the legislators — who elect her, by the way.
She said there were two main concerns. One, that the board had begun to meddle into local decisions about schools, and two, that local and state officials had been treated poorly at the board.
“As my mother used to say, it’s not what you say, it’s the way that you say it,” Kopp observed. She said some people were trying to avoid coming before the board and others were coming to board meetings “with tears in their eyes, shaking because they don’t know how they are going to be treated.”
Kopp is “Maryland’s icon” on school construction, as Franchot put it, She chaired the 2002 commission that set the current process and funding goal in place.
Kopp also served on the recent 21st Century School Facilities Commission, whose work was the basis for HB1783 that had Franchot and Hogan so peeved. (An earlier version of the story incorrectly stated the treasurer would serve on the new Interagency Commission.)
There were complaints that Franchot and Hogan had politicized the role of the board, targeting potential opponents.
The whole subject of education funding this year has become extremely political. The Maryland Democratic Party laid its cards on the table last week with a press release headlined “Hogan Puts Politics Ahead of Students with Veto Threat of $150M in School Construction.”
“Governor Hogan needs to grow up,” said Maryland Democratic Party Chair Kathleen Matthews in the release. “Democrats are working to take the politics out of school construction funding and empower local school officials to decide what’s best for their students, but Larry Hogan is throwing a tantrum because he doesn’t want to share his toys. Governor Hogan has used the Board of Public Works as a cudgel to attack Democrats for three years, while Democrats in the legislature are protecting students by preventing Hogan from playing politics with school construction funding.”
The party and its legislators make a big deal that the bill increases the goal for school construction funding from $250 million to $400 million a year. In fact, Hogan has been budgeting an average of $360 million for school construction each year. His plan to create an education lock-box for casino revenues proposed adding $100 million more for school construction.
Hogan’s lockbox proposal is going nowhere. The legislature’s plan for a constitutional amendment to guarantee that all casino’s revenues be used in addition to all other education aid formulas — unveiled by Democratic leaders with great fanfare in January — passed the Senate unanimously two weeks ago, with all 14 Republicans voting for it. As a constitutional amendment, it bypasses the governor and goes directly to the voters on the ballot in the fall, adding $400 million to $500 million to spending on public schools.
Polling consistently shows that increased funding for schools is popular among all segments of the electorate, and the second most important issue after jobs and economy.
If Hogan vetoes the school funding bill, as he has promised to do, Democrats will portray it as just another example of his lack of support for schools — dismissing his funding of $6.5 billion in education aid formulas and $360 million a year for school buildings. Despite the complaints by Hogan and Franchot, the bill represents a fairly minor reduction of the board’s power in reviewing $9 billion in state spending each year. And even under the bill, the governor must still put the appropriation for school construction in his capital budget.
The bill has turned into a combination of election year politics and the legislature’s continuing goal of taking spending decisions and power away from the governor. That’s much easier for a Democratic legislature to do when the governor is a Republican.