ANNAPOLIS — The House of Delegates approved a state budget on Thursday that would pave the way for half a billion dollars in spending on school construction and provide pay raises to state employees.
In a nearly unanimous decision, the chamber voted in favor of the budget bill and a Budget Reconciliation and Financing Act, more commonly called a BRFA. The proposed budget modifies spending in the $46.6 billion budget proposed by Gov. Larry Hogan (R) in January, which Minority Leader Nicholaus Kipke (R-Anne Arundel) warned may simultaneously spend and limit the governor’s access to too much money.
“I hear the concerns of the minority leader, but I stand here and I ask you this question: Who would we be if we didn’t give our workers a raise? Who would we be if we didn’t pass the Fight for $15? Who would we be if we didn’t invest in every child in every ZIP code in this state?” said Appropriations Chairwoman Maggie McIntosh (D-Baltimore City).
All of Frederick County’s delegates voted in favor of the budget — which passed the chamber 124-14 — except Del. Dan Cox (R-Frederick & Carroll).
Cox said in an interview that he voted his conscience, after an amendment to keep state money out of abortions in cases where the mother’s life is not threatened was voted down and the Appropriations Committee decided to cut portions of the state’s BOOST program, which provides scholarships to students to attend nonpublic schools. He also shared concerns raised by the minority leader.
“I think you can vote your conscience on some of these issues, knowing the budget is going to pass,” Cox said.
The Democratic majority of the chamber, however, has championed the budget as a win for education, which under the current bill would allocate $500 million to school construction and $320 million to implementing the first phase of the state’s Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, commonly called the Kirwan Commission.
“I would say the money for Kirwan is a lot, but — given the overall scope of the project — is seed money,” said Del. Karen Lewis Young (D-Frederick).
The Appropriations Committee may also vote on Friday on an additional bill that could leverage $2.2 billion for school construction on top of the funding already in the budget. Counties would be able to take out 30-year bonds to address the backlog of school construction and renovation projects, including the number of portable classrooms currently in use.
Frederick County currently operates 66 school facilities with 154 portable classrooms, according to a letter shared by Del. Carol Krimm (D-Frederick). Krimm was excited about the potential to help address the safety and classroom climate problems in some of Frederick County Public Schools’ portable classrooms.
“This bill will help us,” Krimm said.
In order to fund everything in the budget, while also keeping it balanced, the Appropriations Committee did need to approve a BRFA.
A BRFA is used to change mandated spending and is a mechanism to balance the budget, Krimm said. Del. Jesse Pippy (R-Frederick & Carroll) joined Cox in opposition to the BRFA, which ultimately passed 105-32.
Pippy used his vote against the BRFA as a way to show his displeasure with the changes made by the Appropriations Committee, he said in an interview.
“They took a well-balanced budget and, you know, they kinda chopped it up and added a bunch of new things into it,” Pippy said.
Krimm, who worked on the budget as a member of the Appropriations Committee, said the budget was largely still Hogan’s budget and accompanied by a small BRFA compared with previous years.
Pippy said he supported the governor’s original budget, and that without the BRFA the work of the committee could not be carried out. The tension for some of the Republicans in the House is that they want to support the governor and his budget, but when the committee’s budget doesn’t do what the governor intends, it’s a “Catch-22,” Cox said.
Downtown hotel and conference center
Still coming over the horizon, though, is several million dollars’ worth of capital spending on the downtown hotel and conference center in the city of Frederick.
As proposed, the capital budget would continue to roll over grants allocated to the hotel and conference in 2016 and 2017 as well as preauthorize an additional $1.5 million in fiscal 2021 for the planning, design, acquisition and construction of public infrastructure for the hotel.
The proposed budget has not yet been voted on by the full Appropriations Committee, and could still change.
Rick Weldon, president of the Frederick County Chamber of Commerce, was pleased to see some additional money be considered for the project, which is estimated to end up costing $10.5 million.
“We’re as supportive of it today as we were 12 years ago,” Weldon said on Thursday.
The planned multimillion-dollar, 199-room hotel and 20,000-square-foot conference center is slated for development at 200-212 E. Patrick St. downtown. Plans also include renovation of the historic Frederick Railroad building, which most recently housed the Frederick News-Post headquarters, into a dual retail center and potential office and residential space.
For the past several years, the project proponents have sought full support from the county’s delegation. Hogan has said he would not support the project unless all seven legislators were on board.
However, the team working on the project this year bypassed the Frederick County delegation, which was a major transparency problem for the delegation and public, said Sen. Michael Hough (R-Frederick & Carroll).
“It’s the same backroom deals to get this through,” Hough said, after finding out about the money on Thursday morning. “... Millions of dollars are being appropriated for the downtown hotel without any public hearing in Annapolis.”
Krimm said in response to Hough’s accusations that she worked directly with the chairs of the Appropriations Committee and Capital Budget Subcommittee to get the preauthorized funds into the state’s capital budget. Krimm also said she never represented her requests for funding for the development as coming from the delegation, nor did the chairs ask her to get delegation support.
“We all get things in our committees. When you have bills, you get your bills through. I get money,” Krimm said.
The hotel developer, Plamondon Hospitality Partners, is set to contribute the lion’s share of the estimated $79.5 million cost of building the downtown hotel and conference center. However, the city, county and state are set to cover $16.5 million of public infrastructure, including land and on-site public parking and off-site road, utility, streetscape and creek area improvements.
Frederick Mayor Michael O’Connor thought he had been clear the hotel team was not going to force a delegation vote on the project.
“We told members of the delegation, this is the approach. We told them the intentions for the project,” O’Connor said. “It’s not necessarily our wish or desire to force the delegation to vote on this. It is not necessarily productive.”
And, despite being in the capital budget for 2021, the money is far from guaranteed.
The Board of Public Works — which is made up of the governor, Treasurer Nancy Kopp and Comptroller Peter Franchot — will need to vote to release the funds, which it has not done for previous allocations to the project.
The state’s total commitment to the project also is still below the $10.5 million anticipated to be needed. The hotel team has not yet started discussing how it would make up the gap, Weldon said.
O’Connor said that if the money is not obtained this year, the project will move forward without the extra funds.
“This is the last session we’re going to go through this process,” he said earlier in March. “We will find out what we are going to get in the budget this year. We don’t intend to go after it after this year.”
Staff writer Mallory Panuska contributed to this report.