ANNAPOLIS — Sweeping changes to how state school construction funding is approved would take power and the bully pulpit away from the governor and comptroller under a bill being considered in the House of Delegates.
Changes to a bill meant to streamline and modernize a sometimes labyrinthine process by which the state Interagency Committee approves and funds hundreds of millions of dollars of construction projects statewide suddenly turned political, according to some. The Democratic chair of the House Appropriations Committee agrees but said it’s in response to a member of her own party — Comptroller Peter Franchot.
“We didn’t make this political,” said Del. Maggie McIntosh, the committee chair. “The comptroller made it political. We’re trying to take the politics out of the process.”
The bill incorporated a number or changes recommended by the Knott Commission, which was appointed by House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. to review the state school construction funding and project approval.
Some legislators who worked on the commission say the injection of politics tainted the effort.
“I was looking forward to voting on it,” said Del. Jefferson L. “Jeff” Ghrist, R-Upper Shore and a member of the House Appropriations Committee and Knott Commission. “I won’t vote for this bill now. I think this amendment tarnishes all that we’ve done over the last two years and completely politicizes it.”
The bill with McIntosh’s amendments also appears to be veto bait for the governor if it eliminates oversight by the Board of Public Works.
“Veto? If it comes to that it would be a real shame since the administration was supportive of what came out of the commission,” said Douglass Mayer, a Hogan spokesman. “That said, it would be irresponsible to do anything else.”
Franchot said the legislature is “abusing its power” and attempting to eliminate a public process that has brought accountability to issues such as mold in Howard County Public Schools and lack of adequate heating and air conditioning in Baltimore City and Baltimore County.
“These issues would never have been addressed except for the access that parents had to the Board of Public Works,” said Franchot. “This is no good deed goes unpunished.”
As introduced, the bill created a more streamlined process for approvals and allowed counties with a track record of sound management of school construction projects the ability to get a five-year waiver that would allow them to sidestep some state approvals and avoid unnecessary delays.
The bill also proposes to create an inventory and ranking system of every school building in the state and requires maintenance plans. The bill also would pave the way for innovative funding of school construction including public-private partnerships, a revolving loan program to help smaller and poorer jurisdictions including Baltimore City, to forward-fund needed projects and the construction of regional schools.
The bill envisions requiring jurisdictions to maintain a contingency fund to pay for cost overruns created by delays in construction — something that the city has said has caused delays resulting in a lack of heating in some schools this past winter.
The bill calls for incentives for innovative or environmentally sustainable buildings.
Finally, the original bill calls for a minimum of $400 million annually for school construction — a $150 million increase over recommendations in a 2004 study led by then Del. Nancy K. Kopp, a Democrat and the state treasurer.
But Tuesday, McIntosh presented sweeping changes not covered in the Knott Commission report, including removing all authority oversight on school construction funding by the Board of Public Works, a three-member panel that includes Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, Franchot and Kopp.
The Interagency Committee on School Construction would be renamed as the Interagency Commission and be made fully independent of the Board of Public Works, which created the five-member panel in the early 1970s when then-Gov. Marvin Mandel created a system of state aid for school construction and renovations.
And the current five-member panel that effectively included three appointments by the governor would be expanded to a nine-member panel. Five of those members, including the secretaries of Planning and General Services and the state schools superintendent and two members of the public, would selected by the governor. The remaining four would be appointed by the legislature.
The chair of the panel would be co-appointed by the governor and the leaders of the House and Senate.
The new bill would also prohibit spending state bond money on projects or equipment with a life expectancy of less than 15 years, such as window unit air conditioners — a popular topic of the comptroller.
All of the changes proposed by McIntosh were not taken up by the Knott Commission and were not part of its interim report to the General Assembly.
“Placing billions of dollars into the hands of an unelected and unaccountable group of people, which includes handpicked lobbyists, is a surefire way to create a cesspool of corruption and cronyism,” said Doug Mayer, a Hogan spokesman. “At a time when students, parents, and teachers are crying out for more accountability in our schools, removing executive oversight over school construction is one of the most tone-deaf and fiscally crazy ideas to ever come out of the General Assembly. This a bad idea and the people behind it should be ashamed of themselves.”
McIntosh said this is about Franchot and his efforts to inject politics into the process.
“This is not a bill about the governor, at all,” McIntosh said.
McIntosh said Franchot’s involvement in calling for a new Dulaney High School in Baltimore County and his leading the charge to withhold $5 million from Baltimore City and $10 million from Baltimore County over a lack of air conditioned classrooms “stuck in my craw.”
Franchot said the amendments would kill transparency and accountability.
“This is why the Maryland public dislikes the political machine in Annapolis,” Franchot said. “Here they are abusing their authority to remove public oversight of school construction and put in some smoke-filled backroom in God knows where.”