Maryland lawmakers shrugged off dire warnings from Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan on Thursday, voting to override the Republican executive’s veto of a controversial school construction measure.
Because of the Democrats’ sizable advantage in the 141-member House of Delegates, backers of the legislation had little trouble marshaling the necessary votes, ending up with a five-vote cushion.
In the Senate, the veto was overturned with the bare minimum, 29 votes. All 14 GOP lawmakers voted to sustain, joined by Democrat James Brochin (Baltimore County). Sen. C. Anthony Muse (D-Prince George’s) was present but did not vote.
The measure, HB 1783, the 21st Century School Facilities Act, removes the state Board of Public Works — made up of the governor, comptroller and treasurer — from its decades-old role in hearing school funding appeals and doling out money for construction and renovation.
The bill had a narrower focus at first — to modernize the state’s school construction funding process, with reforms recommended by a commission that spent two years studying the issue. Late in the session, lawmakers appended the changes involving the Board of Public Works, with an amendment that a committee voted on, hastily, in the Senate lounge without a hearing.
To the extent there was drama, it was in the Senate, where attention focused on two Democrats who represent communities candidate Hogan carried in the 2014 election, lawmakers who were singled out publicly the day before by Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D).
Both of those Democrats — Sen. James N. Mathias Jr. (Lower Eastern Shore) and Katherine Klausmeier (Baltimore County) — voted to override, despite what they said was an intense public lobbying campaign.
“In the last 72 hours in my district, I’m being flooded by robocalls,” Mathias, the former mayor of Ocean City, said. “I’m being targeted on the Facebook.”
“Those of you who called, you know who you are, you got my answer. I’m voting to override,” Mathias said. “This is a tough vote if I’m going to make my vote based on politics. It’s an easy vote when I base my vote on conscience and our children.”
The issue of how school construction dollars get allocated has emerged as one of the most divisive of the 2018 session.
Backers of the status quo, particularly Hogan and Franchot, argued strenuously that the Board of Public Works provides a unique backstop against local ineptitude and corruption, an “accountable” and accessible group of elected leaders to whom a frustrated public can turn for building funds.
Critics have heaped scorn on the current process, in which local leaders wanting to appeal a turndown from the Interagency Committee on School Construction appear in what’s been dubbed the “beg-a-thon.” They said the process is antiquated, overly political and — of late — a demeaning “circus.”
There were frequent references during the floor debate to children wearing coats in frigid Baltimore city classrooms, the lack of air conditioning, mold in one Howard County school, and the resignation of a top official over the “astonishing disrespect” the panel showed to local superintendents and professional staff at a 2016 meeting.
Hogan upped the ante Wednesday when he whipped out his veto stamp at the Board of Public Works meeting while cameras clicked. In a speech, he railed against the “disgusting cesspool” that will form if responsibility for doling out school construction funds shifts to a revamped IAC panel. In a symbolic flourish that was later mocked by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), Franchot signed his name next to Hogan’s.
Nancy K. Kopp, a Montgomery Democrat who served seven terms in the House before becoming state treasurer in 2002, expressed regret that the board had become “Kabuki theater.”
The new nine-member panel will be made up of two members of the governor’s cabinet, two citizens appointed by the governor, the state schools superintendent and four people selected by the legislature.
Del. Robert L. Flanagan (R-Howard) chided Democrats for their abrupt about-face.
“The majority party [used to] express pride in the Board of Public Works. Now I hear [a colleague] from Montgomery County saying we should have abolished it a long time ago,” he said. “You’re really changing your tune.”
“Revenge is best served cold. I think this is a hot bill,” said Deputy House Minority Whip Susan K. McComas (R-Harford). “Would we be doing this if it weren’t an election year, if it wasn’t a Republican governor and we weren’t mad at the comptroller?”
Despite the objections, Democrats prevailed in the end.
“We are creating a process that is fair, that will be transparent, and that will expedite the projects that we know are absolutely necessary,” said Sen. Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore city). “There’s a kindergartener in a Baltimore city public school, in a Washington County public school, that’s in a school that’s insufficient, in the richest state of the richest country in the world. By waiting another year, we’re saying that’s OK.”