Hogan agrees to spend $2 million to fight heroin

By Erin Cox, The Baltimore Sun

Gov. Larry Hogan committed Thursday to spending $2 million to fight heroin addiction, the first time he has agreed to spend any of a $200 million pot of cash that has stirred discord in Annapolis.

The governor campaigned on addressing Maryland's growing crisis of heroin deaths. In a wide-ranging interview with a regional press association Thursday, he said he would spend the sum set aside by lawmakers for heroin treatment.

"It's an emergency facing our state," said Hogan, a Republican. "It's tearing apart families and communities."

His comments follow two weeks of calls by Democrats and others for the governor to commit to spending $200 million the legislature cordoned off for its priorities: defraying expenses of public schools, preventing a pay cut for state workers and funding a variety of health initiatives, including for heroin treatment.

Hogan has consistently said he thinks it is more fiscally responsible to spend $75 million on the state's pension system first. He did not make any commitment Thursday to spending the cash on other priorities.

Despite urging this week from a bipartisan group of county leaders that he make a decision on school funding soon, Hogan said he would take his time to thoroughly review his options. "We'll make a decision when we make a decision," he said.

As he discussed his first 93 days in office, the governor dismissed the notion that the legislative session ended last week in "acrimony," saying he believed the budget fight was conducted in an agreeable manner.

"We had real differences of opinions," Hogan said, adding, "We're off to a great start."

He acknowledged he has work to do to repair his relationship with House Speaker Michael E. Busch, who has emerged as the governor's most vocal critic on school spending.

"I wish I had a magic wand to wave to make my relationship perfect with the speaker of the House," Hogan said.

The governor promised to sign legislation that would implement the largest rewrite of the state's public records law in 45 years.

Under the legislation, for the first time organizations denied access to public records will be able to appeal to an ombudsman without having to go to court. Anyone charged large fees to view records will be able to have a special commission review the fees to determine if they are reasonable.

Hogan also said that while he continues to review plans for the $2.45 billion Purple Line light rail in the Washington suburbs, he was unlikely to OK the project unless contractors could come up with a way to spend "much, much less." It would require "mucho reductions" in the cost for him to approve going forward with the project, he said.

Hogan pointed out that the railway, along with the proposed Red Line to connect East and West Baltimore, together cost $5 billion, which he said was more than the state pays for roads. He did not say whether he intended to move forward with the Red Line.

"It's not whether this is a worthwhile idea," Hogan said. "It's a question of whether the state can do it at this time."

While Hogan said he would sign a trio of bills that will enable police departments across the state to begin body camera programs, he was lukewarm on a bill that would restore voting rights to felons while they are still on probation or parole.

Hogan also weighed in on another bill that would require online hotel booking companies to remit more cash to the state, seeming to side with proponents who argue the measure would stop the companies from pocketing tax revenue that is being charged to consumers. Opponents say the measure amounts to a new tax and have urged the governor to veto it.

"The consumers are already paying the money and [online companies are] skimming it off the top," Hogan said. "We haven't made a decision on what to do on the bill, but I wouldn't constitute it as a tax increase."