The governor does not have the power to unilaterally delay projects approved by the General Assembly because legislators fail to send him letters supporting the projects, the state attorney general's office ruled today.
Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. said the full Board of Public Works might be able to implement such a requirement, but not as a blanket policy.
Curran's ruling is the latest development in a spat between Gov. William Donald Schaefer and the legislature that has held up construction projects and grants all over the state since May.
Angered by campaign charges that he's a big spender, Schaefer refused to bring local projects approved by the legislature before the Board of Public Works without written letters from local legislators saying they support the project.
Since then, money has been withheld for a senior center in Allegany County, a sewer in Cecil County, an emergency shelter in Howard County, a water pump station in Kent County and a YMCA loan in Washington County, to name a few, while the governor awaits the lawmakers' signatures.
Angry lawmakers asked the attorney general whether the policy was constitutional. In a 14-page opinion, Curran said today that Schaefer alone could not prevent the three-member Board of Public Works from considering the projects.
He said board members could ask lawmakers whether they support projects in their districts and consider that information in their decision to approve an expenditure. But Curran warned that for the board "to take the position that it would never approve a project without evidence of legislators' support" could be viewed by a court as an "arbitrary" policy contrary to the board's duties.
The board is required to approve all state expenditures of more than $5,000. Besides the governor, the board consists of the state treasurer, who is elected by the legislature, and the state comptroller, who is elected independently by the voters.
Schaefer's policy, which some legislators described as "blackmail," began last May as one of those political "inside baseball" contests in the latest feud between the governor and the Maryland General Assembly.
Schaefer, still smarting from 1990 election campaign charges that he's a big spender, set up the new procedure to protect himself from similar accusations in the future.
"Your so-called 'big spending' governor can't spend a nickel of state money without the General Assembly's permission," Schaefer explained in a weekly column distributed to local newspapers last week.
Schaefer's policy had prompted angry mutterings in State House hallways over what some lawmakers see as a deliberate abuse of his constitutional power.
"When this started out," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., "people thought maybe the governor had a bad case of diaper rash. But it's escalated."
Miller, D-Prince George's, and House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Eastern Shore, were so outraged by the governor's surprise order that they sent letters to lawmakers telling them they don't have to sign anything of the sort.
The capital projects and grants were approved by the legislature when it passed the state budget, Miller and Mitchell argued, and no further approval from lawmakers is needed.
So the standoff began. Schaefer dug in his heels. So did Miller and Mitchell. In the meantime, projects began clogging the pipeline.
A few lawmakers decided it was better to sign than fight. For example, when most members of the Frederick County delegation signed an endorsement of a community college grant, the project zipped through the board's agenda. Without the requisite signatures, most others have not.
State Treasurer Lucille Maurer, who represents the legislature on the board, tried unsuccessfully to talk Schaefer into letting the board act on a grant for the Benedictine School, a Catholic-run facility in Caroline County that cares for severely retarded children and teens.
"I knew he cares about handicapped children and wastewater treatment plants and all the kinds of projects that are being held up," said Maurer.
But, she said, when she approached Schaefer privately about the Benedictine School, "I had no luck with him."
Since then, Maurer has taken a different approach. In letters to board secretary James J. McGinty Jr., the treasurer said she personally has gotten support from some lawmakers regarding certain projects in their districts.
Was that enough to get the items onto the board agenda?
"Not to my knowledge," McGinty said yesterday.
The stalled projects and her failed attempts to get them through the board have left the usually conciliatory Maurer distressed.