House approves public-private partnership bill, threatening pending State Center lawsuit
The House of Delegates approved a controversial bill backed by Gov. Martin O’Malley that would better define the state’s policy on public-private partnerships for major construction projects after a spirited debate on Monday.
The bill, originally backed by the O’Malley administration and written by a task force that looked at improving public-private partnerships, would provide an improved process for the state to review and coordinate infrastructure project proposals from private developers.
However, there was fierce debate in the House chamber over a committee amendment adopted Saturday that would expedite the legal process for the defendants of public-private partnership lawsuits. This amendment would allow them to go directly to the state’s second highest court, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, without having to first go to the circuit court.
If approved by the Senate, the amended bill would retroactively affect a lawsuit currently pending in the courts against the $1.5 billion State Center development project in downtown Baltimore. The new complex would replace dated government buildings with offices leased to state agencies as well as apartments and shops.
The project has been on hold since December 2010 when a group of Baltimore landlords and business owners, called the Coalition to Save Downtown Baltimore, filed a lawsuit against the state claiming the project was not competitively bid and would have a devastating impact on properties in the downtown area, which have struggled with high vacancy rates for years.
Opponents argued the bill would effectively eliminate the pending lawsuit and deny the right of business owners to have their day in court.
Although the chamber approved the legislation 81-52 on Monday, opponents attempted to halt the bill one last time, saying it would open the door to corruption and shady deals.
“This modern, progressive General Assembly is ready to vote against transparency, against competitive bidding, against disclosure, and we are ready to vote for shadow government in the 21st century,” declared Del. Patrick McDonough, R-Baltimore County, adding that taxpayers would end up footing the bill as state agencies would pay $36 per square foot for office space built by the state.
“Shame, shame, shame,” McDonough thundered, before calling the bill a “disgrace.”
Opposition was echoed on the other side of the aisle by Montgomery County Democrat Luiz Simmons, who said arguments from supporters that the development would create jobs were no different from arguments he heard when the legislature was battling corruption in the 1970s upon his arrival. Simmons said some people never learn.
“This is a casual and suspect sweetheart arrangement that is going to be confirming special favors,” declared Simmons. “We are sowing the seeds of corruption.”
Speaking to MarylandReporter.com after the House vote, the attorney for the lawsuit plaintiffs, Alan Rifkin, said the retroactive amendment was a blatant attempt to end-run a matter still pending before the courts and prevent facts from emerging in a public trial.
“It’s an affront to the integrity of the entire judicial system and clearly intended to affect one and only one piece of litigation,” Rifkin stated.
Rifkin said that if the bill passes the Senate, the group will challenge the legislation’s constitutionality in court.