Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan calls himself the “new sheriff in town” — aggressively policing state spending in a way that has left some state officials in the hot seat.
On Wednesday, the chief operating officer of the University System of Maryland felt his wrath after trying to defend a $16 million expenditure by telling Hogan (R) that it had already been approved by the General Assembly.
“I’m here to make sure that we’re not wasting taxpayers’ money,” Hogan said, his face turning red.
The heated exchange came at a bimonthly meeting of the Board of Public Works, a three-member panel that approves all major state expenditures. In his first three meetings since taking office, Hogan — who sits on the panel along with Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D) and Comptroller Peter Franchot (D) — has berated state employees for, among other things, not getting enough bids before awarding contracts, going over budget and extending contracts for years on end.
A feeling of timid trepidation hung over those who waited to present to the board Wednesday. One health official took the stand and acknowledged that she was now “on the hot seat.”
Hogan says his no-nonsense approach is part of his effort to rein in government spending and search for waste that can be eliminated. So far, the contracts that the governor is criticizing mostly originated during the tenure of former governor Martin O’Malley (D). But soon Hogan will have to approve work done under his own hand-picked secretaries and agency leaders.
The University System of Maryland officials were appearing before the board for the second time in two weeks. At the last meeting, a key university official was absent and those who were present could not answer a series of questions from the board about why some approved construction projects had grown in price by millions of dollars.
Since then, University System of Maryland Chancellor William E. Kirwan had reached out to the governor to smooth things over and Hogan toured one of the project sites, a new science center at Bowie State University.
“All of these projects seem to be very worthwhile,” Hogan said Wednesday. But he still did not understand why the Bowie science center is costing $16 million more than originally estimated.
“How? How did it happen?” Hogan asked with a baffled chuckle. “We understand costs sometimes go up. We understand sometimes somebody screwed up and forgot to put something in the contract. . . . But $16 million of things that we just forgot?”
That extra money was needed because the university system forgot to budget for equipment costs — but the General Assembly has already granted that money. The system just needed permission from the board to spend it, two officials explained.
Hogan was still confused — as were Kopp and Franchot.
“Can you explain it in a way that isn’t confusing?” Kopp said at one point.
Joseph Vivona, the system’s chief operating officer, told the board that the overall price of a project — along with unexpected extra costs along the way, such as the extra $16 million — is decided by the General Assembly through the budget process, not this board.
The board’s role, Vivona offered, is to ensure that contracts went through a competitive bid process. His contention angered Hogan, who countered that the board’s role was to safeguard public dollars.
Vivona then apologized for not better explaining the process to the new administration: “We should have known that during a transition . . . ”
“It has nothing to do with the transition,” Hogan said, his voice raised and his arms waving. “My colleagues have been here the whole time. None of us have any idea what you’re talking about. It’s not about the transition.”
Vivona apologized again and offered to change the way in which the university system presents its contracts to the board going forward.
“If it’s not [changed], we may have to look at alternatives on the entire procurement process for the university system,” Hogan said. “Maybe the state might have to start getting more involved. . . . How about that?”
Hogan shifted in his seat. Kopp held her face in her hands. Franchot watched intently. Vivona searched for the right words.
“We’re not satisfied with the explanation,” Hogan continued. “We’re not satisfied with the process. We don’t like anything about it.”
Eventually, Hogan and the other two board members approved the contracts, with the governor saying he didn’t want to hold up these “clearly important projects.” But Hogan asked the university system officials to work with his administration to come up with a way to present contracts more clearly in the future.
“The Board of Public Works decides if we’re going to spend the money or not,” Hogan said. “Just so you know. That’s how the process works.”