The practice, long supported by lawmakers in more conservative states such as Virginia, could allow Maryland to move forward with billions of dollars in projects that, because of debt limits, the state could not otherwise afford.
But Maryland’s methods would make the process ripe for corruption, critics say, and even upend an existing lawsuit challenging one of the state’s biggest plans.
To appease labor, the shift would come in a distinctly Democratic mold. Under legislation expected to come to a vote Monday in the House of Delegates, any jobs generated as the state hands off public assets would carry requirements that private enterprises pay living wages, ensure minority business involvement and put in place other labor-friendly protections.
With that, the legislation has gained unlikely allies. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and nearly every other major public employee union in Maryland has lined up in support of the bill.
But in another reversal of traditional roles, the plan has drawn fire from Republicans and the state’s chamber of commerce. They say it would jettison decades of legal precedents that ensure a fair and open bidding process and would return Maryland to a murky set of contracting rules.
The bill would give the state broad powers to negotiate deals outside the established procurement system and to decide how taxpayer money would be sent to developers to pay for large, upfront investments.
“It would let state agencies circumvent competitive bidding altogether simply by having a government official designate a project as a ‘public-private partnership,’ ” said Scott Livingston, a lawyer who helped write Maryland’s procurement laws after a series of corruption scandals — including one that led to the 1973 resignation of Vice President Spiro T. Agnew (R), a former Maryland governor. “This is a dangerous retreat from established safeguards.”
Publicly, O’Malley has maintained an arm’s length from the legislation, which gained momentum Saturday when it advanced in the House. Brown has led a series of public hearings and has testified before legislative committees in favor of the measure.
But behind the scenes, the concept is one on which O’Malley has worked closely. And with the potential for contracts lasting 50 years, the partnerships could amount to one of the most enduring legacies of O’Malley’s administration.