This story has been updated.
Last week’s decision by Gov. Larry Hogan (R) to withhold over $245 million in funds for projects designated by the Maryland General Assembly appears likely to affect two ongoing projects in Southern Maryland.
Funding for the acquisition of rights-of-way along the proposed route of the Southern Maryland Rapid Transit corridor and for agricultural land preservation are among the list of projects for which the governor is withholding funds that also includes funds for school construction and raises for correctional officers.
Hogan announced his decision to withhold the funds at the start of last Wednesday’s Board of Public Works meeting, saying he intended to redistribute the money that had been specifically allocated by state legislators to fund public safety and public health priorities of his own.
One of the two “fenced-off” allocations being withheld is a special fund appropriation for $2.5 million that would have been used to acquire rights to land along the proposed route of a light rail line that would run from the Branch Avenue Metro station in Prince George’s County to White Plains.
It is unlikely that the funds would have been used, however. The terms of the allocation specified that both Charles and Prince George’s counties would each have to provide $1.25 million in matching funds in order to unlock the state funding. Should either county decide not to provide its share of the funds by Sept. 1, the state money would have automatically been freed up for use in other construction projects.
To date, neither the Charles County Board of Commissioners nor the Prince George’s County Council have taken legislative action to allocate their matching funds.
Gary V. Hodge, president of Regional Policy Advisors, told the Maryland Independent that the governor’s decision to withhold the funds was “anticlimactic.”
“The budget earmark offered by the Senate [Budget and Taxation] Committee for the SMRT project failed to address the urgent need for state funding to complete the project planning and [National Environmental Policy Act] process, would have been contingent on an inappropriate commitment of local funds, and had already been declined by the County before the end of the 2019 legislative session,” Hodge said.
Hodge has argued publicly that it would not make sense to use the money for right-of-way acquisition before the “critical and necessary” planning phases that would establish the final alignment of the route.
Furthermore, Hodge added, “Historically, it is the State’s responsibility to purchase the right-of-way for major transportation projects, not a local one.”
Hodge also addressed the issue at a prior Board of Public Works meeting in Annapolis, telling Hogan “the traffic relief project we need is the Southern Maryland Rapid Transit project.... That project has been in the priority letters for ten years from both Prince George's County and Charles County, and has been sitting on the Secretary’s desk for five years."
Hogan is also withholding $990,000 from the Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission for the preservation of farmland in the three Southern Maryland counties as well as Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties.
SMADC has used the funds, plus additional matching grants contributed by the five counties, to protect over 27,000 acres of agricultural land as well as forests and wetlands from development. SMADC’s goal is to preserve a total of 35,000 acres.
For most years since 2000, the state legislature has provided land preservation funding to SMADC out of the state’s portion of the federal government’s settlement with major tobacco companies.
“Governor Hogan and his administration have always been very supportive of the agricultural community here in Southern Maryland, and across the state, and we’re very appreciative of that,” SMADC director Shelby Watson-Hampton told the Maryland Independent in a written statement. “It is true that at the moment the SMADC Land Preservation Funds for Fiscal Year 2020, which go to the five Southern Maryland Counties of Prince George’s, Anne Arundel, Charles, Calvert, and St. Mary’s, to help farmers preserve their lands through conservation easements, are tied up in the set-asides under Project Open Space and are currently not being funded.”
“We know that Governor Hogan is trying to balance many complex issues at the state level, and understand his larger concerns, but would also be very excited to see the funds released, if that is possible,” Watson-Hampton said.
In a statement released following the Board of Public Works meeting, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert, Charles, Prince George’s) urged the governor to reconsider his decision to withhold the $245 million and said that “he is certainly allowed to change his mind.”
“I am extremely disappointed that the Governor is not choosing to fund many worthy projects, including some that were originally in his proposed budget, and some that were added based off testimony from many Marylanders to the Legislature,” Miller said in his statement. “Based on my conversation with the Governor, I was under the impression that he intended to review the list closely and deserving projects would proceed with funding. The bipartisan budget passed by the Legislature was balanced, and did not alter the structural deficit any differently than in the [governor’s] originally proposed budget.”