Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan escalated a long-simmering power struggle with state lawmakers Wednesday, refusing to spend money the legislature had earmarked for dozens of programs, including rape-kit testing and building schools.
The Republican governor’s decision not to spend $245 million — the largest sum he has ever withheld from an approved state budget — could affect more than 70 initiatives statewide and is the first tangible demonstration of his recent promise to “battle” the Democratic-majority General Assembly on spending.
Hogan said the state could not afford the entire tab for those programs, some of which he supports, and that he wanted to save the money in case an economic downturn occurs. At the same time, he pledged to cut spending elsewhere to pay for a handful of the affected programs, including rape-kit testing.
Had Hogan decided to release the earmarked funds, the money could have been spent starting Monday, when the fiscal year began.
The decision marks Hogan’s third confrontational act since abandoning a possible presidential bid last month that he had said would be built on themes of bipartisanship and finding middle ground. He vowed last month to fight Maryland Democrats over spending, and this week withheld money from WMATA over transparency concerns.
Hogan criticized lawmakers as “reckless” for earmarking money in the budget without his consent — a maneuver known as “fencing off” funds. “There is not really excess money piled up behind a magical fenced-off area,” he said.
The governor earlier released more than $200 million “fenced off” by the legislature to launch a landmark education initiative. On Wednesday he accused Democrats, who have been lobbying him on social media for weeks to release the money, of trying to spend down state coffers faster than tax dollars could replenish them.
As a consequence, Hogan said, “no additional fenced-off money will be added to or spent by the administration.”
The $46.6 billion fiscal 2020 budget overwhelmingly passed by lawmakers was slightly smaller than the one Hogan proposed in January. But it reshuffled the governor’s priorities and directed money instead to those favored by Democrats, who hold veto-proof majorities in both the House and Senate.
“These aren’t Democratic priorities — these are the people’s priorities: voted on by Democratic and Republican legislators,” House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) said in a statement.
“ ‘Reckless’ is NOT testing rape kits to find rapists,” Jones said. “ ‘Playing games’ is when you pretend to care about school conditions but then don’t put the money up for new school construction.”
Some of the programs that are unfunded as of now include pro bono lawyers for college rape victims, summer jobs for teens, park projects, redevelopment plans in distressed neighborhoods, a transit project in Southern Maryland and a program that prepares tax returns for the poor at no charge.
The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which canceled its summer season over financial trouble, will not receive the $1.6 million lawmakers set aside for it.
Hogan said he would “not allow critical public safety and health needs to go unmet,” and his administration would scrub department budgets to find money to pay for programs he deemed worthy.
His spokesman, Michael Ricci, later said that list includes the rape-kit testing, technology for Baltimore police, programs related to the opioid epidemic and notifying new mothers on Medicaid about changes to coverage.
Ricci said there would be an “ongoing” review of agency budgets to see if Maryland can find funding for more of the affected programs.
Hogan introduced a plan earlier this year to pay for school construction by floating bonds backed by future casino revenue. The General Assembly rejected that strategy and opted to earmark an extra $127 million in the budget for school construction this year.
“If the legislature cared so much about school construction, it should have passed our plan, instead of playing budget games,” Ricci said in a statement.
Del. Shelly L. Hettleman (D-Baltimore County), who sponsored the law that requires rape- kit testing, said there are 6,000 tests sitting on shelves waiting to be processed.
Hogan said he is concerned about a possible national recession and believes it would be prudent to keep the money unspent, citing a projected budget gap of more than $900 million next year. Maryland is required to have a balanced budget every year and annually closes gaps of similar magnitudes.