ANNAPOLIS — A year into his tenure as governor, Republican Larry Hogan told the state’s Democrat-controlled General Assembly that tax relief and fiscal conservatism will make Maryland stronger, despite the setbacks the state has seen in the past year.
Video by Josh Rogers
Last year, Democrats criticized Hogan for delivering what they called an “angry” speech. Now enjoying a 67 percent approval rating, according to a Gonzales poll last month, he focused this year’s speech on bipartisanship, imploring lawmakers to take the “middle temperament.”
Video by Gio Insignares
“In the days ahead, I extend my hand to you – in cooperation and in devotion to our duty – and I ask each of you, and all Marylanders, to seek that middle ground where we can all stand together,” Hogan said in his State of the State address Wednesday. “Because together, we are stronger.”
The message of cross-party cooperation seemed to resonate even with Democratic lawmakers.
“I like the fact that the governor said the door is open, I believe leaders can come up with good ideas, and good ideas become great ideas when you fuse them together,” said Senate Majority Leader Catherine Pugh, D-Baltimore.
The speech, like most of Hogan’s rhetoric this session, was focused on fee reductions, tax relief and fiscal responsibility.
“Our first and most important task was to correct our state’s fiscal course, and to get our economy back on track,” he said.
Hogan reminded both chambers of the legislature that he reduced or eliminated 100 fees last year, which he said saved taxpayers $51 million.
In his budget proposal this year, Hogan planned to reduce taxes and fees by $36 million in fiscal year 2017. That equates to $480 million in tax relief over the next five years by reducing fees for birth and death certificates, cutting environmental surcharges on electricity bills, reducing business filing fees and providing an earned income tax credit to some working families.
“As we look ahead, now is certainly not the time to abandon the fiscally responsible principles, which together we have instituted,” Hogan said.
Like his budget proposal, the speech underlined the importance of saving money for the future.
Under Hogan’s 2017 fiscal year budget, there will be $1.1 billion in the Rainy Day Fund, and a $450 million unallocated cash balance.
Hogan talked at length about education funding, thanking the General Assembly for helping him fully fund public schools, including the Geographic Cost of Education Index. GCEI, as it’s known, is a supplemental education package that lawmakers mandated he pay for this year, after Hogan did not fully fund it last year.
Leaders from majority-Democratic jurisdictions, including county executives, delegates and state senators, held a news conference earlier Wednesday in Annapolis, where they said Hogan’s stated priorities have not matched up with his funding priorities.
“The governor has promised to provide record funding for education, and yet, how much money is in this budget beyond the minimum operating budget that’s required by law? Zero,” said Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, a Democrat, standing with county executives from Prince George’s and Montgomery, and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
Transportation spending was another point of disagreement among some Democrats and Hogan.
The second-term governor announced $2 billion in “shovel ready” infrastructure projects to fix aging roads and bridges.
“When you take transportation funding that the Republican counties voted to have repealed and then you divvy it up to your friends and cancel the Red Line, that’s not reducing government, that’s just spreading it a little differently,” Rawlings-Blake said.
Hogan said he is going forward with a more “cost-effective version of the Purple Line as well as a transformation of the transit system in Baltimore,” including a revamp of the city’s bus system.
He highlighted a “Manufacturing Jobs Initiative,” which would waive taxes for some companies that bring jobs to the areas with highest unemployment, like Western Maryland, Baltimore City and the Eastern Shore.
Hogan also said in the past year there have been 55,000 new jobs created in Maryland, and said he is working to reduce regulations in the state.
“I think it’s going to be a more pro-business kind of platform,” said Senate Minority Whip Stephen Hershey, R-Cecil, Kent, Caroline and Queen Anne’s.
Stopping Maryland’s heroin problem is also a top priority. Recently, Hogan introduced legislation that would strengthen the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program as well as institute stricter penalties for drug trafficking, and he thanked Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford for his work on the Maryland Heroin and Opioid Emergency Task Force.
Hogan also talked about the need for Congressional redistricting reform. He has proposed an independent redistricting panel to prevent gerrymandering. It would require a constitutional amendment.
“And let’s also come together in a spirit of bipartisanship, to protect that most fundamental right of every American citizen: the right to free and fair elections,” Hogan said.
By far the biggest moment of bipartisan applause was when Hogan talked about being blessed by Pope Francis on behalf of all cancer patients.
He noted that Maryland had been asked to overcome a lot in the past year, between his cancer diagnosis, the unrest in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray and the recent snow storm.
“Together, we have been tested,” he said. “But in the face of adversity, we were not Democrats or Republicans looking backward. We were Marylanders with our eyes fixed forward, working together for a better tomorrow.”