By Bruce DePuyt
Maryland Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, the long-serving but frequently overlooked member of the state Board of Public Works, on Wednesday faulted her two colleagues — the governor and comptroller — for bringing politics and “theatrics” into the panel’s decision-making.
Kopp’s comments came on the day Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan (R), presiding over a Board of Public Works meeting, vetoed with fanfare a controversial schools construction measure. After reading a speech in which he slammed the 21st Century School Facilities Act, the governor pulled out his veto stamp while cameras rolled and nullified the measure, holding up the document to show a large red X he had drawn through the text.
House Bill 1783 would strip the board of its power to allocate school construction funds. It passed both chambers with veto-proof margins late last month.
In issuing his veto, Hogan called it “one of the most outrageous and irresponsible actions that has ever been taken by the Maryland General Assembly. A last-minute secret bill was rammed through, with no hearings, no public input, no notice, in smoke-filled back rooms.”
He gave a full-throated defense of the current system, noting that “nearly every vote has been unanimous.”
“Quite frankly, I’m very proud of the work that we have done — the three of us — over the past three years, working together in a bipartisan way. When [school officials] are breaking the law or wasting the taxpayers’ money, it is our obligation as the state’s leading fiscal leaders … to hold people accountable.”
While expressing optimism in the new process the bill outlines, Kopp also offered support of the current arrangement. “I think we should keep the system that we had. Yes, there have been problems, obviously. But they can be overcome. I just wish we could cut the theater.”
“[Having school construction] professionals, as opposed to just political input, could work out to be a very good thing,” she said.
As the governor gave his speech Wednesday, Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) appeared to beam, while Kopp (D) mostly looked at her laptop. Lawmakers have admitted publicly that Franchot’s alliance with Hogan was part of the reason they amended a measure that was originally drawn to modernize the school construction process.
For decades, the Board of Public Works has heard school construction appeals at sessions known in Annapolis as “beg-a-thons,” awarding million of dollars each year to local school systems for new buildings and modernizations.
In urging lawmakers not to overturn his veto, Hogan issued a dire warning.
“This bill, if allowed to become law, would be an unmitigated disaster for our state [as it] would create a disgusting cesspool of cronyism and corruption in the school funding process,” he said.
The House and Senate timed their consideration of the measure so that they can attempt to override Hogan’s veto before adjourning April 9. The measure passed the Senate with the bare number of votes needed to override.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) called the governor’s comments “very upsetting.”
“Somebody you consider your friend, and you want to work with to move government forward, who says these things that are factually untrue. Like [President] Trump, he’s depending upon the ideology of his support base to think that way and vote that way regardless of the facts. He doesn’t tell them the facts,” Miller said.
Kopp, a Montgomery County Democrat who has worked alongside four governors, said Maryland’s system for school construction “has gained recognition across the country. … But I think the process has been hurt by the Board of Public Works theatrics.”
“I don’t think the politicians on the Board of Public Works should approve certain projects that they just happen to like for reasons of the moment. That really didn’t happen until fairly recently,” she said.
Aides to Hogan and Franchot maintain that their independence has given frustrated parents and school officials a way to get around ineptitude at the local level. If the measure is vetoed, Hogan is certain to raise the issue as he campaigns for a second term.
The 21st Century School Facilities Act would put power to allocate school construction money into the hands of a revamped Interagency Committee on School Construction, a nine-member panel whose members would be appointed by the governor and legislative leaders.
If the legislature overrides Hogan’s veto, Kopp believes the new process “will be open, will be transparent and will have public input.”
“The governor will appoint the majority of the members of this commission. It does not diminish his authority,” she said. “[I expect] they will make very good decisions — based on local priorities.”
The panel will be comprised of the state schools superintendent, two members of the governor’s cabinet, two others appointed by the governor and four by the legislature.
Franchot urged lawmakers not to override Hogan’s veto.
“This is about an open process where teachers, parents and students have a say and are heard before this board,” he said.
He singled out two Democrats from parts of the state that Hogan carried in 2014, Sens. Katherine A. Klausmeier (Baltimore County) and James N. Mathias Jr. (Eastern Shore).
In an act of solidarity, the comptroller then added his signature to the vetoed measure.
“I’m signing this as Peter Franchot … for the people,” he said.
As he prepared to transition to the rest of the meeting, Hogan turned to Kopp and said, “I appreciate your opinion and quite frankly I feel bad that they made you say things like that.” The comment — likely directed at the legislative leaders who appoint the treasurer — drew loud laughter in the hearing room.
Kopp, a highly respected expert on fiscal matters during her time in the General Assembly, later said she found that remark to be “rather patronizing.”