ANNAPOLIS — The Maryland Legislature may have just concluded, but tough decisions are still on the agenda for Gov. Larry Hogan as he chooses which bills to sign, and whether he will spend hundreds of millions of dollars on education, state employee raises and Medicaid — monies set aside by the General Assembly that he must approve.
He spoke to Capital News Service Wednesday about his first legislative session, as a Republican governor elected in a majority blue state working with a Democratic General Assembly.
Hogan ran on a campaign to clean up the state government, he said, by reducing spending and eliminating Maryland’s $700 million structural budget deficit.
He wanted to cut taxes, and help charter schools. He wanted to do everything he said his predecessor, Democrat Martin O’Malley, could not, or would not, do to ensure a responsible fiscal future for the state.
To do all this, he introduced 25 bills. Eight passed. Of those, two were budget-related, and two were changed so much that some Republicans predicted Hogan might veto them.
Hogan’s bills allocating funding for charter schools and public financing for gubernatorial races were “amended up so badly” by the House and Senate that, said Senator Michael Hough, R-Carroll and Frederick, he did not vote for them.
“They chopped up the governor’s legislative proposals, which rolled in as Ferraris and rolled out on the floor after the Democrats were done with them as tricycles,” Hough said.
Hogan, who is holding his first ever elective office, is undeterred.
“We had a very light legislative agenda,” he said. “Our focus really wasn’t on legislation. Our focus was primarily on getting government spending under control and finding a better way to spend the taxpayers’ money in a more efficient and more cost-effective way, and that’s what we’re doing.”
Hogan’s bills that did not get past the General Assembly included tax relief for small businesses, a repeal of the automatic gas tax increase and tax breaks for companies and individuals who donate to private schools, among others.
His passed legislation included public election financing for gubernatorial campaigns, funding for charter schools, and a retired-military tax break.
The Legislature also passed a bill that would repeal the “rain tax,” but still require counties to report annually how much money they set aside to help clean up urban runoff heading to the Chesapeake Bay.
When Hogan was sworn in as Maryland’s 62nd governor on a snowy Jan. 21, the word of the day was “bipartisan.”
Since then, Hogan has had a more contentious relationship with the Democratically controlled Legislature.
The governor faced a back-and-forth with the Legislature over the state budget and his agenda.
As his term began, Legislature Democrats wondered whether Hogan would fund the red and purple lines, light rail projects for Baltimore and Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, respectively. Hogan on Wednesday seemed to indicate he would prefer to fund highways and other infrastructure over the two public-transportation projects but said he had made no official decision.
“These are multi-billion dollar transit projects at a time where we really have not done a very good job of maintaining, fixing or building roads or bridges in the state,” Hogan told CNS on Wednesday. “Mass transit fits into our overall strategy, but you can’t take all the money from roads and put it into one transit project for one or two counties.”
Democrats said during the legislative session that they would consider the governor’s policy initiatives if he promised to fully fund a supplemental education budget for public schools, reinstate state employee raises that had been cut in Hogan’s initial budget proposal, and return subsidies to physicians who accept Medicaid.
In return, Hogan said he would look at these — if the Legislature considered his bills.
“He’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hogan,” said state Senator Richard Madaleno, D-Montgomery. “There’s times he comes down and talks about bipartisanship, he wants to work together, and then he goes out and actively undermines the deals that he’s trying to foster in the General Assembly.”
Freshman Delegate William Folden, R-Frederick, said that Hogan’s agenda could have been treated better by the Legislature. Some adjustment was expected due to the climate change after eight years of O’Malley, who had a strong relationship with the General Assembly, Folden said.
“It was very welcoming at first and then it got a little contentious and adversarial,” Folden said. “At the end, everybody wanted what they wanted and nobody was willing to give.”
The governor said Wednesday that there was some partisanship, and cited the unwillingness of House of Delegates Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, to read some of Hogan’s legislation across the floor for a discussion and vote as an example.
Alvin Thornton, a professor of political science at Howard University and the creator of the education funding formula the state uses to provide money to public schools, said that Hogan was trapped in a no-win situation and was doing the best he could.
“Honestly, the problem here is he was elected on a Republican agenda, a national agenda, which he has to give some degree of attention to,” Thornton said Tuesday. “At the same time, he has to build a working relationship with a Democratic-controlled General Assembly — he has to walk that tightrope.”
But if Hogan does not choose to release money set aside for supplemental education funding in the budget by the Legislature, Thornton warned, the governor could have a tricky term.
“With the expectations of the people of Maryland, I don’t think the governor would want to be on the opposite side of that consensus,” Thornton said.
In a move to ensure Hogan would fund the supplemental education budget, on the last day of the session the Legislature passed a bill that would mandate the governor spend an additional $136 million annually starting next year.
Hogan said Wednesday he had not made a decision about the bill or about spending any of the set-aside funding.
“It’s not a debate about whether we think education should be a priority,” Hogan said. “It’s not a debate about whether public employees should receive a raise and how hard they’re working, it’s really about how do we come up with the money to fund all these priorities that we agree on without putting the state in a really bad fiscal situation.”
Political scientist Todd Eberly said that the disagreement between the Legislature and Hogan was over $200 million, a tiny fraction of the state’s $40.7 billion spending plan. Of that $200 million, particularly contentious was $75 million, which Hogan wanted to put in the state pension fund and Democrats wanted to use for education and other programs.
“To the extent that any election claims a mandate is questionable,” Eberly, a professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, said of Hogan’s voter-derived directive for fiscal responsibility.
“It should be expected that Hogan pursued the things he promised in his campaign, but he’s got to work with the Legislature and each member of the Legislature also ran a campaign and was elected on promises as well. … They all have their own mandates.”
Busch battled with Hogan over the $200 million of rearranged funding in the state budget and said Hogan had been too partisan throughout the session.
“So his determination is, does he fund education, does he fund state employees, does he fund (medical care),” Busch said last week. “And I think he’s going to be judged on whether he takes those initiatives or not, now that the Legislature’s laid out a clear path to do that.”
Hogan’s plans for the future are still wide open, he said Wednesday.
Erin Montgomery, a spokeswoman for the governor, confirmed Thursday evening that Hogan would sign a package of three pieces of legislation on police accountability, including two bills to allow law enforcement to wear body cameras that would record sound and images; and a bill requiring law enforcement to file a report if a suspect dies in police custody.
Hogan’s decision comes in the wake of protests over the death Sunday of Freddie Gray, a Baltimore resident who died of spinal cord injuries one week after he was arrested by city police.
Hogan faces a June 2 deadline to sign or veto legislation approved by the Assembly or it automatically becomes law.
The governor signed in 121 bills on April 14, but those were the “easiest ones” that nearly everyone agreed on, he said.
“The ones we now have, hundreds of them, we’re reviewing each one very carefully to make decisions but we have not decided to veto anything,” Hogan said. “And we’ll still be signing lots more bills. But we’re just going to be very cautious and proceed.”
What he has made clear is that he intends to revamp the contract procurement process on the Maryland Board of Public Works, a body that includes Hogan and Democrats Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy Kopp and oversees how state agencies spend their money.
Irked by “reckless” spending on the board, Hogan has called for more bidders for state contracts, increased transparency and careful spending to change the culture of agencies asking for extra money with little explanation for how they will spend it.
Franchot, who has voiced similar opinions, has found an ally in Hogan.
“I’m a Democrat, he’s a Republican, but I think that on the Board of Public Works, we’ve developed a very positive relationship around reforming procurement and making sure that the taxpayers get the benefit of competition in public contracts,” Franchot said.
“To the extent of being with him on the Board of Public Works, and working to reform the procurement process, I think he’s doing a great job.”
Hogan’s plans include a task force chaired by Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford to come up with a better procurement system, he said Wednesday.
Hogan said while this year he didn’t get everything he wanted during the legislative session, he would keep working to ensure a positive relationship with the General Assembly.
“I think we accomplished a lot of what we wanted to do, we did it in exactly the way we hoped to do it, and we’re going to continue to get more cooperation from them in the future,” he said.
With that, he was off to his next meeting to discuss another 100 bills in a single sitting for a bill signing scheduled for April 28.