by Jacob Taylor
Capital News Service
Maryland lawmakers this week began hearing testimony and debating several key pieces of Gov. Larry Hogan’s legislative agenda, including his proposed repeal of the Maryland Open Transportation Investment Decision Act of 2016. The act, which Hogan calls “the Road Kill Bill,” has become a point of bitter partisan contention between the Republican governor and the Democrat-controlled legislature.
Legislative committees heard testimony for and against six of Hogan’s bills, Wednesday. His repeal of the Open Transportation Investment Decision Act is by far the governor’s most contentious.
Conflict surrounding that law has mutated beyond its policy impact and become something of a proxy war in the greater political struggle between the Republican governor and the Democrat-controlled legislature ahead of the 2018 elections.
Hogan has furiously fought the Open Transportation Investment Decision Act, a Democrat-led law that would assign a score to all transportation projects and requires the governor to provide a written explanation if he decides to fund a project with a lower score over a higher one. He vetoed the bill last year and has continued to heap criticism on the law and its supporters since the legislature overrode his veto at the end of the 2016 session.
A few weeks ago, during his 2017 State of the State Speech, Hogan called the law “poorly drafted” and “misguided.” His call for its immediate repeal was met with raucous, standing applause from his cabinet and Republicans while most Democrats, who make up about two-thirds of the legislature, sat in stony silence.
Supporters and detractors of the law often appear to base their arguments on fundamentally different understandings of what the transportation law does, on a practical level.
Montgomery County submitted testimony opposing repeal on the grounds that Hogan’s assertion that the law forces the cancellation of 66 transportation projects is essentially incorrect because it is based on “uncodified language.” In contrast, Howard County submitted testimony supporting repeal because “66 out of 73 transportation projects are cancelled, including five critical transportation projects in Howard County.”
Associated Builders and Contractors, a national trade association for construction companies, favors repeal on the grounds that the state’s process for selecting transportation projects was already transparent and that the law does not improve things; the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, a transportation advocacy group, opposes repeal because the law “improves transparency and accountability.”
The divide was on full display Wednesday as a panel consisting of Secretary of Transportation Pete Rahn, Chief Legislative Officer Christopher Shank, and Deputy Legislative Officer Christopher Carroll, who supported repeal on behalf of the governor’s office, testified and fielded questions from the mostly Democrat budget and taxation committee.
Rahn called the law “potentially well intended” but argued that it is “broken.”
The committee briefly interrupted the panel’s testimony to allow Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller Jr., D-Calvert, Charles and Prince George’s, to speak. Standing over the seated panel Wednesday, Miller repudiated the administration’s testimony by insisting that the transportation law “is advisory only” and arguing that it “was unfaithfully implemented” by the executive branch. He flatly rejected the possibility of repealing the bill, saying that it is “out of the question.”
Miller said the law is needed to reassure the public that transportation money, especially from contentious sources such as the gas tax, is being spent in the best way possible.
Miller announced an amendment to the repeal bill that would effectively require the governor to score projects but not act on those scores for two years.
At present, the governor must allocate funding based on scores, but he can technically fund any project so long as he offers a justification. His office argues that funding a lower-scored project could open the state up to lawsuits from those who would benefit from displaced projects with higher scores.
The amendment would also create a bipartisan work group that would evaluate the scoring system to be used for transportation projects.
Sen. Nathaniel McFadden, D-Baltimore, brought up the cancellation of the Red Line light rail project in Baltimore and cast the law as a consequence of Democrats feeling as though the governor’s office was not funding transportation projects fairly.
Sen. Guy Guzzone, D-Howard, suggested that the department of transportation had control over designing the regulations that determine how projects would be scored, and could have designed the system to reflect the governor’s priorities.
Sen. George Edwards, R-Allegany, Garrett and Washington, said there is “no question” that the current scoring system disadvantages rural areas because of its emphasis on population as a deciding factor. However, he said it seemed unlikely that a repeal effort would succeed and that negotiation may be the only way forward.
Repealing “the Road Kill Bill” was not Hogan’s only piece of legislation to come before a committee Wednesday.
The Public Integrity Act of 2017 is a major part of Hogan’s push against corruption and abuse of power in the State House. Democrats in the legislature have been shaken this session by an ongoing FBI investigation into liquor licenses in Prince George’s County; a former Democrat delegate has already pleaded guilty to bribery charges as a result of the investigation.
Hogan’s proposal would prevent legislators from supporting legislation that would benefit a company they own or work for. The bill also requires legislators who are married to a lobbyist to disclose their spouse’s clients, prohibits legislative and executive staff from engaging in lobbying for at least one year after they leave public service, and prevents registered lobbyists and employees of lobbying firms from being appointed to state boards or commissions.
In addition, the bill removes the authority to enforce conflict of interest and financial disclosure rules from the Joint Commission of Legislative Ethics, which is made up of lawmakers, and gives those powers to the State Ethics Commission, which consists of private citizens.
Hogan proposed three bills that would affect individual taxes. One would do away with state taxes on military retirement income. That bill is supported by a range of veterans’ groups and no opposition testimony was presented at the bill’s hearing in the Senate Budget and Taxation committee on Wednesday.
The second bill would allow Marylanders to deduct the interest they pay on student loans from their state income tax, so long as they earn less that $200,000 per year. The original bill only applies to baccalaureate and graduate degrees, but a friendly amendment proposed by the Maryland Association of Community Colleges would add associate degrees to the bill.
Lastly, a third bill would increase the amount of retirement income for law enforcement, fire, rescue, and emergency services personnel that is exempt from state taxes. The bill is supported by a number of associations representing the positions that would be affected. The Maryland Chiefs of Police Association and the Maryland Sheriffs’ Association offered their support but requested that the exemption in the bill be extended to correctional officers.
The Maryland Association of Counties opposes the deductions for student loan interest and emergency services retirement income on the grounds that they will hurt local revenue.
The More Jobs for Marylanders Act aims to incentivise job creation in “qualified distressed counties,” jurisdictions with higher-than-average unemployment and low per capita income, by offering tax benefits to companies that open manufacturing operations in those areas, such as Allegany, Dorchester, Somerset, Worchester, and Baltimore City.
A representative of Tradepoint Atlantic — owner of Sparrows Point, a former industrial site in Baltimore County, which is not a qualified as distressed — said the company supports the legislation but requested the bill’s geographic boundaries be altered so it and other businesses could benefit.
Several manufacturing companies from areas that would be eligible for the tax benefits have come out in support of the bill.