Republican Gov. Larry Hogan has no intention of removing two controversial Cabinet secretaries from their positions — even though the state budget that takes effect Saturday zeroes out their paychecks.
Democratic majorities in Maryland’s House and Senate approved budget language this year that would eliminate the pay of Planning Secretary Wendi Peters and Health Secretary Dennis R. Schrader, after legislators said Hogan unconstitutionally kept Peters in a post for which she would not have received Senate confirmation.
“Secretary Schrader and Secretary Peters will continue to serve the state in their current roles, and like all employees of the state, they will be paid for their work,” Hogan spokeswoman Amelia Chasse said this week. “It is entirely within the governor’s purview to withdraw and reappoint Cabinet secretaries, particularly when the Senate fails to act in good faith during the confirmation process.”
But that’s not the take of legislators.
Sen. Bill Ferguson, D-Baltimore city, chairman of the Executive Nominations Committee, said it is “an unprecedented scoff at the constitution of our state” if Peters and Schrader are allowed to continue in their positions, despite the will of the Senate.
State lawmakers will wait until the first paycheck of the new fiscal year to see if the secretaries are compensated.
If Peters and Schrader are paid, senators may take the unusual step of initiating a lawsuit against the executive branch.
State employees are next scheduled to be paid on July 12, according to Joe Shapiro, assistant comptroller. That check is mostly for June, but will include pay for hours worked until the Fourth of July.
Drama over the fate of Peters and Schrader has been unfolding since March.
On the night of March 13, the Senate Executive Nominations Committee voted 11-6 against Peters’ nomination to head the Maryland Department of Planning.
Peters, from Mount Airy, had been appointed by Hogan to the Cabinet-level secretary position in July 2016 and had previously worked as the state’s deputy secretary.
That same night, Hogan withdrew Peters’ nomination from consideration by the full Senate. But senators later learned that Peters remained in the position at the Maryland Department of Planning, despite the committee’s vote and the likelihood that she would receive a negative vote from the full chamber.
Budget negotiators then amended the 2018 state budget to stop payment for Peters — or any other similarly situated nominee who received an unfavorable committee vote during the 2017 General Assembly session — if she continued working in an assistant secretary or deputy secretary position.
The governor’s office withdrew Schrader’s nomination in April before the committee voted.
The budget amendment would not have stopped Peters or Schrader from working in state government outside of a leadership position in the departments where they failed to gain confirmation.
Nevertheless, Hogan reappointed Peters and Schrader to the same secretary positions at the end of the General Assembly session, which outraged Democrats.
But Hogan’s office hasn’t backed down in its support for the nominees.
“Whoever wrote the unconstitutional language that was inserted into the budget likely knows it won’t hold up to legal scrutiny,” Chasse said. “The partisan games that were played with the confirmation and budgetary process did a disservice to the people of Maryland, particularly as Secretary Schrader works to protect health care coverage for Marylanders at this critical time.”
But Ferguson has said there are several constitutional concerns with keeping unconfirmed nominees in critical Cabinet positions.
The senator said in April that any actions by the secretaries after their “unconstitutional reappointments” created a sort of legal jeopardy for the state.
He also said the whole episode amounted to a constitutionally murky end run around the Senate.
The Maryland Constitution states: “No person, after being rejected by the Senate, shall be again nominated for the same office at the same Session, unless at the request of the Senate; or, be appointed to the same office during the recess of the Legislature.”
But because Hogan took action when he did — after a committee vote on Peters but before final action by the full Senate chamber — the governor might have cover for his decision to reappoint.
“Nothing prevents the Governor from choosing as his recess appointee the person whose nomination had been submitted but then withdrawn,” a previous Office of the Attorney General letter to Ferguson stated.
Ferguson said he received another legal advice letter this week that he said makes it “abundantly clear” that the budget amendment approved by the Legislature was lawful. Ferguson said the draft opinion concluded that the budget language was “a Constitutional and effective means of protecting the power of the Senate to confirm nominees.”
He has requested further legal advice as the July 12 payday nears.
In a nomination hearing on Feb. 27, Peters faced many questions about her management of the state’s Department of Planning.
Senators asked her about new policies that laid out office dress code and cubicle cleanliness requirements in extreme detail, in addition to more substantive questions about the department’s commitment to the state’s planning priorities, employee morale and staffing levels.
Before and after the hearing, people sent messages to senators encouraging them to vote against Peters’ nomination.
One came from a former employee who reported working under multiple governors, including Republican Robert Ehrlich Jr.
“While there were ups and downs during my tenure, nothing comes close to what I have heard about since the Hogan administration,” the former employee wrote. “... The stories are real — the place has been gutted, smart growth has been turned on its head, almost all the quality staff has bailed out, been fired or retired, the place is run almost like a military camp with no respect for professionals, staff has been treated like dirt, morale is in the dumper. It’s almost heart breaking.”
In another email to committee members, someone described the office atmosphere as “oppressive.”
Many of the issues sent in writing to committee members came up at the hearing.
Committee members expressed concern over the reported departures of nearly 20 employees, including some who worked for the department for several years, though the Hogan administration has disputed that figure.
After a Frederick News-Post story detailing some of the concerns of current and former planning employees, the governor’s office shared two letters that employees wrote to Peters upon their departures from state government that were complimentary to her. Hogan’s office said Peters’ nomination was withdrawn because she didn’t get a fair hearing.
Hogan’s office also said the failure to confirm Peters’ nomination was sexist, an accusation that Ferguson disputed.
Peters previously served as Maryland’s deputy planning secretary and on Mount Airy’s Town Council, Board of Appeals, and Planning Commission.