Photo by Martin Falbisoner, via Wikimedia Commons

Gov. Larry Hogan on Thursday vetoed more than two dozen bills, including a school spending bill attempting to reshape education in the state and another piece of legislation that would have allocated more than $57 million per year to historically black colleges and universities, saying the state could not afford to increase spending during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The governor cited the projections from the State Board of Revenue estimating Maryland will lose $2.8 billion in three months, adding that officials will have to drain “much of the Rainy Day Fund” to make up the difference.

Hogan (R) also vetoed three tax or fee increases, including a higher tax on tobacco, a new tax on electronic smoking devices and a tax on digital advertising revenue, because he said Marylanders, many of whom are out of work or struggling financially, could not pay them.

“The economic fallout from this pandemic simply makes it impossible to fund any new programs, impose any new tax hikes, nor adopt any legislation having any significant fiscal impact, regardless of the merits of the legislation,” Hogan wrote in a letter to Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore) and Speaker of the House Adrienne Jones (D-Baltimore County).

Maryland’s constitution requires the government to pass a balanced budget.

In separate letters, Hogan said he would let hundreds of bills from the House and Senate become law without his signature. Most notable among those are the Built to Learn Act, authorizing the Maryland Stadium Authority to issue $2.2 billion for school construction, and the Racing and Community Development Act, which would allow the stadium authority to issue up to $375 million in bonds to build new racetracks at Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course.

A provision in the former bill tied it to the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, meaning it won’t take effect.

In a statement, Alan M. Rifkin, counsel for the Maryland Jockey Club, thanked state and local leaders for passing the latter bill, saying it would keep the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico for generations and make Laurel one of the top tracks in the Mid-Atlantic. For years, the fate of the Preakness in Baltimore was an open question, with the Stronach Group, which owns the Maryland Jockey Club, making strong overtures to close Pimlico and relocate the race to Laurel.

“We are confident that the near shovel-ready capital works projects included in the ‘Racing and Community Redevelopment Act’ will be a critical part of Maryland’s financial recovery, jobs creation and community and economic development,” he said.

But lawmakers and advocates were swift to condemn Hogan’s veto of the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, a sweeping package that would have increased state aid to school districts by almost $3.4 billion in 10 years.

With his vetoes, Hogan “chose to foreclose hope, leaving Maryland families and historically black colleges and universities with an open question for the future,” Ferguson said in a statement.

Dr. William “Brit” Kirwan, the former chancellor of the University System of Maryland who chaired the eponymous education committee that recommended the spending increases after three years of hearings, said he was “very disappointed” by the veto.

“As funding permits, this legislation is designed to close Maryland’s achievement gaps and provide world-class schools for every student in the state,” he said in statement. “If anything, the disparate impact of COVID-19 on low income and minority communities only reinforces the need and moral imperative for the provisions in the bill.”

Kirwan also pointed out an issue advocates have raised: the first three years of the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future were funded without increasing taxes.

Cheryl Bost, president of the Maryland State Education Association, a group representing teachers and administrators, also said in a statement the veto was “disappointing.”

“Now more than ever, we need the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future to create strong schools in every neighborhood by expanding career and technical education, providing additional support to struggling learners, and delivering a more prosperous future for our state,” she said. “Our schools have been underfunded for years and recent weeks have only magnified the existing inequities that our students face every day that challenge their ability to succeed in school.”

Both Kirwan and Bost called for the legislature to override the veto.

The funding bill for historically black colleges and universities would have settled a long-running lawsuit alleging the state made harmful decisions that negatively impacted Coppin State University, Morgan State University, University of Maryland Eastern Shore and Bowie State University.

In total, the measure would have allocated $580 million to those schools over 10 years. The bill unanimously passed the Senate and passed the house by a vote of 129 to 2.

On Twitter, Jones pointed to that bipartisan support and said, “I’m discouraged that we will continue to spend millions fighting against a fair and equitable settlement.”

Hogan had previously made a “final offer” of $200 million to settle the suit.

The governor also rejected a series of public safety reforms and reprimanded the House of Delegates for not taking up policies he had proposed, such as strengthening penalties for gun crimes, increasing penalties for witness intimidation and tracking the sentencing records of judges.

The Senate passed a package with those bills, “but the House failed to act upon it, and thus failed to meaningfully address violent crime,” Hogan said.

The bills he vetoed would create a coordinating council to respond to crime, start community programs in 10 high-crime zones across the state, require background checks for private sales of long guns and rifles, expand the confidentiality of juvenile records, add fourth-degree burglary to the list of convictions that can be expunged, remove some marijuana possession charges from Maryland Case Search, and require the governor to allocate $3 million annually to the Maryland Violence Intervention and Prevention Program Fund.

Hogan also rejected an act that would have required him to send $5.5 million to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra from 2022-2026.

Ferguson said he would confer with Jones and members of the Senate on next steps, which could include a special session to override Hogan’s veto and pass other laws that the legislature had to abandon at the end of the coronavirus-shortened legislative session. A three-fifths vote is needed for an override.

The Maryland General Assembly had originally planned to return for a special session, but Ferguson and Jones nixed that plan in April to protect lawmakers and staff and let representatives help in the response to the virus.

“Legislators in every community in Maryland are working to help their constituents through this historic pandemic–and that’s where their focus should remain,” Jones said at the time. “After consulting with health experts, this is the best course of action at this time. We will get through this together–with every branch of government working as a team until we can safely return.”

This story has been updated.

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Brandon Weigel

Brandon Weigel is the managing editor of Baltimore Fishbowl. A graduate of the University of Maryland, he has been published in The Washington Post, The Sun, Baltimore Magazine, Urbanite, The Baltimore...