It should have been a routine committee hearing on Republican Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s bill to improve public school safety across Maryland — a gimme, in legislative parlance, like mom and apple pie.
But appearing before the House Ways and Means Committee, Hogan’s chief legislative officer, Christopher B. Shank, found himself on the wrong end of a legislative blow torch Thursday, as he fielded questions on the bill from members of the panel.
Christopher B. Shank, center, chief legislative officer for Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr., was sharply questioned by lawmakers at a hearing Thursday. Photo by Bruce DePuyt
After presenting the merits of the Hogan’s Safe Schools Act of 2018 to the committee, Shank and his underlings sat back, took a breath and waited for questions.
He then took one for the team – for his boss, really.
Del. Anne R. Kaiser, a no-nonsense Montgomery County Democrat who chairs Ways and Means, began by asking Shank if he had heard Hogan’s comments about the legislature’s not moving quickly enough on the very bill before them.
He understood the context.
In the middle of a news conference in St. Mary’s County, near to the scene of a high school shooting Tuesday that left one teenager dead and two others wounded, Hogan suddenly began slapping at the General Assembly over his bill and how it had not been acted upon.
The legislation, though, had been sent down from the governor’s office past the Feb. 27 filing deadline, requiring it to be sent to the Rules committees after introduction.
“I just want to make sure, for everyone here who may not know, for the record, this bill was late-introduced on March 7,” Kaiser said.
“That appears to be verifying my memory, yes,” Shank responded.
“And then it was pulled out of the Rules Committee two days later?” Kaiser asked.
“Uh, I’m not sure when it had its Rules hearing, but yes,” the governor’s lobbyist said.
“And then it was in the hands of Ways and Means by March 12,” Kaiser said. “And then we assigned it for a hearing. We only had one hearing date last week; so, I feel it was on fast track to get it to the first day of education bill hearings.”
“I read,” Kaiser continued, “that the governor was slamming the House of Delegates for not considering this legislation sooner? And I was wondering if you could address that?”
Shank tap-danced around the question and through his answer.
The governor, he concluded, “feels very passionately about the urgency of passing this legislation.”
“Certainly, we all do,” Kaiser said, unrelenting. “I was just wondering if you saw his comments … the other day that we had delayed this bill?”
“I think his comments, uh, and I guess we can agree to disagree about what the governor said, or the intent behind it, but what I think the governor said is very similar to what we’ve all said up here, and that is, that there’s a certain urgency about this bill,” Shank said.
All the while, Del. Eric G. Luedtke, a Montgomery County Democrat, sat quietly on deck and took measure of Shank’s response.
Finally, it was Luedtke’s turn to step to the plate.
“I’ll have questions about the substance of the bill in a second, but I think this is important because this is an issue that this committee has always treated as completely bipartisan, that this legislature’s always prioritized,” Luedtke said.
Since there appeared to be some question in Shank’s mind about Hogan’s comments earlier in the week, Luedtke took the opportunity to remind him.
“The governor’s exact words were: ‘We’ve got one of the most aggressive school safety plans in America that we introduced several weeks ago’ – which was not true — ‘as emergency legislation in Annapolis, and the legislature has failed to take action on it. … It’s outrageous that we haven’t taken action yet on something so important as school safety.’”
Luedtke continued: “I hope you will convey to the governor that all of us, regardless of party in this legislature, are totally supportive of the idea of improving school safety, but we have to pull together on it. It cannot be a partisan issue or an election-year issue.”
Finally, he said, “I gotta tell you, that I’ve never been more disappointed with [Hogan] than I was with those comments.”
At that point, Shank asked if he could respond, and over Kaiser’s objection, did so.
“Hopefully we can move on to a productive conversation,” Shank said. “We are here to talk about this piece of legislation. I hope that, it is apparent that you share the same sense of urgency as the governor does about this, and we are looking forward to moving on and getting, rolling up our sleeves in a bipartisan fashion and passing this bill.”
If he was listening, Luedtke did not acknowledge Shank’s remarks, moving instead to begin his questioning.