By Len Lazarick
Five years ago, I sat in a small conference room with a local real estate entrepreneur discussing his new organization with the unlikely mission to “Change Maryland” from its tax-and-spend ways.
Late Friday afternoon, I sat down with Larry Hogan again, this time in his more spacious digs in the 240-year-old State House discussing how far Maryland has come in that time.
“I’m very pleased with where we are at this point,” Gov. Hogan told me, summing his view of the legislative session.
No longer a novice elected official, he is as blunt and self-assured as ever, packing a wealth of experience into 14-months in office. An oddity as the Republican governor of a blue state and its hyper-Democratic legislature, he has battled formidable challenges. Not just the expected test of dealing with the Mikes — Senate President Miller and House Speaker Busch — who have together 72 more years experience in State House governance than he has.
But a six-month long battle with lymphoma that could have killed him, the state’s major city in flames after a day of riots last year, and a governor’s more commonplace crises of a blizzard and other emergencies.
Of course, we talked about taxes and spending: The least contentious and swiftest passage of a budget in a decade, with huge reserves of extra cash and no tax hikes; the prospect of actual tax cuts, about which Hogan is more hopeful than optimistic; the legislature’s override of a veto on transportation scoring, a bill he blames on Montgomery County developers.
And there were a couple of small surprises, like his talk with Virginia’s Democratic governor about trading legislatures, and the guitar hanging on the wall signed by one of his favorite country music stars that is a reminder of his biggest challenge and personal success.
The most important thing is that Larry Hogan is still alive. He will turn 60 next month, which was no certainty last June after he found a lump in his throat on a trade mission to Asia.
“I feel good. …. My energy level is back. I’m getting actual eyelashes for the first time.”
“I’m still overweight.” While in chemotherapy, “I took 10 steroids a day and ate a lot and didn’t exercise. I put on like 30 or 40 pounds.”
His hair, once a heavy shock of white-grey which he had for 20 years, is coming back. “Now it’s about half and half,” dark and white. “It’s sort of not coming in evenly.” He gets it trimmed so it all stays about the same length.
Tax cuts and spending
Spending and tax cuts are always top of mind with Hogan. His campaign mantra and governing principle is to roll back as many of the tax hikes of former Gov. Martin O’Malley as he can.
Controlling spending is the easier task with perhaps the strongest “executive budget” of any governor in the country, allowing the legislature only to cut his spending plan.
“We funded everything that anyone ever asked us to fund. Every group is happy; we put record money in education, higher education, HBCUs [historically black colleges and universities]; and we have more tax revenue coming in.”
The persistent structural deficits have been cured for at least several years.
Cutting taxes has been far less successful, but he succeeded in at least changing the dialogue from tax hikes to cuts.
“The fact that we’re actually debating about which taxes to cut is something that hasn’t happened in a while. Busch has a tax package, Miller has a tax package. And they seem to be in disagreement.”
“I’m just happy we’re arguing about cutting t
axes; I support Busch’s cuts and Miller’s cuts. I’m for all of them; I’m a little frustrated that we didn’t get our tax relief for retirees and small businesses, but it looks like hopefully we’re going to get hometown heroes[reduced taxes on pensions for police and first responders]; maybe an across the board income tax.”
“I’m hopeful that we’re going to get something done. But the fact that we’re actually talking about tax cuts — that wouldn’t have happened two years ago.
“It is literally a fight between Miller and Busch. I don’t think they can get it resolved by Monday. We’re just hoping they can come to an agreement.”
Veto override: ‘a very bad mistake politically’
Friday’s interview took place hours after the Senate overrode his veto of the new transportation scoring bill, one of only two bills he chose to fight. It would have required him to rate transportation projects before deciding which ones to fund.
“The real million-dollar question is who drafted that bill,” said Hogan, “because it was obviously written by lobbyists for a couple of projects in Montgomery County. It wasn’t drafted by the people downstairs. The people who voted on it had no idea what it did.”
“It wasn’t really the environmentalists [who did it]. It was about people making money in Montgomery County. They just used the environmentalists.”
Why did he choose to fight this so strenuously?
“I fight on the things that are really important even if we’re not going to win because it’s worth fighting for,” said the governor.
“Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. They can override every veto, I don’t think they should.”
“I think it was really bad bill in the first place,” though he admits it got better as provisions were stripped. “I think it was a terrible mistake for them to override that veto. And I think most people in Maryland are going to agree with that. And I think they are going to find that people are going to be very upset that they are trying to mess with their local roads.
“I think it was a very bad mistake from a policy standpoint and I think it was a very bad mistake politically, a very bad mistake.”
Hurting the rest of the state
“There’s no question” developers were behind it, Hogan insisted. “It only benefits a couple of people. It hurts almost everybody else in the rest of the state. Or attempts to hurt them all — we’re going to try to make sure it doesn’t.”
Wait a minute. Don’t you have all that money to spend on roads because the legislature passed a gas tax hike in 2013 that you tried to roll back last year?
“Absolutely — we had more revenues,” Hogan said. “We’ve been eight years behind on road construction. As you pointed out, now we have the money to deal with it.”
“Everyone is really happy about that. Every local government is thrilled,” the governor said.
About the vetoed transportation bill, “They keep saying: ‘It’s not really binding.’ Well, that’s true.”
“It mainly takes power away from the local governments who were the ones who decided on these projects.”
“The bill says we have to score it. And we may score it and say, ‘If we follow the legislature’s stupid guidelines, none of the roads in the state would be built.’ Here’s our scoring. But we’re going to ignore this scoring and we’re going to build all the road that are the top priorities.”
“And we’ll be able to say every time we do a road opening, that Senator So-and-so and Delegate So-and-so didn’t want us to build this road in your district but we’re going to do it build this road anyway.”
Are you going to invite them to the ribbon cutting for new road projects?
“No, we will not invite them to the ribbon cutting. It’s just a stupid thing for them to do. I don’t I have no idea other than politics what their possible motivation could be.”
(Gov. O’Malley and other Democrats would sometimes complain that Republican legislators would show up for opening ceremonies of highway projects funded by the gas tax hike they didn’t vote for.)
Mandating for his own programs
Hogan had proposed a bill relieving governors from some mandates that control over 80% of the discretionary general fund budget. That legislation has gone nowhere.
Yet, while he vetoed the transportation scoring which he concedes in its present form doesn’t actually force him to do anything, he allowed several bills with new mandates to become law without his signature.
“We’re not thrilled with mandated spending, but in many cases we supported the program,” Hogan said.
He found a five year mandate for spending to demolish boarded up homes in Baltimore both amusing and superfluous.
“The blight stuff is my baby,” Hogan said. “I dreamt it up myself, personally. I got people working on it for a year. We went and announced it” in the fall with the mayor and other Democratic officials. He worked out an memorandum of understanding with the city and put funding in a supplemental budget.
Then the legislature comes along and says, ” ‘We’re going to mandate that you do your own program.’ Thanks. We don’t like mandates, but thanks for making me spend the money that I wanted to spend.”
“It was my idea. There was no reason to veto them, there was no reason to pass them.”
Be the first to stop gerrymandering
The governor set up a commission to recommend changes for drawing new congressional and legislative lines. It recommended an independent, nonpartisan commission. Perfunctory hearings were held, but the bills have not even come up for committee votes. Democratic leaders refuse to act unless Republican-controlled states take similar actions to curb gerrymandering, drawing district lines for partisan gain.
“I’d love to see a 50-state solution,” said Hogan. “I’d love to see the federal government act. I’d love to see other states that are Republican act.”
“But why can’t we be the first? Everybody makes an excuse about why we can’t do it. If we were to take action, it would be something the rest of the country could look to. The other states would say maybe we should do it too.
“There’s growing support for this in Democratic states, in Republican states, and all across the spectrum. The president keeps talking about. I’ve reached out to him. Everybody talks about it but then they don’t actually want to vote for it. I think we just have to get it done instead of waiting for somebody else.”
Will Hogan bring the proposal back next year?
“If it doesn’t happen, we’ll probably come back and fight some more. It’s an issue I really care about.”
Democratic supporters of change in gerrymandering have proposed Maryland enter in a compact with Virginia or Pennsylvania to sign a compact to make their redistricting nonpartisan too. Both states have Democratic governors and Republican controlled legislatures, which gerrymandered congressional districts in favor of the GOP; Maryland did the opposite. Asked about a potential deal, Hogan said he has discussed a different tradeoff with Virginia’s chief executive.
“I joked with Terry McCauliffe about trading legislatures. We talked about that yesterday at the Nats opening day. He was saying to me. ‘You know I have a bunch conservative Republicans and they’re giving me hell down in Richmond.’ And I said, ‘You know I have liberal Democrats, and I’d love to trade.”
“Maybe we should try that for at least a day. But we haven’t discussed a compact.”
Hogan was reminded that’s an issue where he actually proposed giving up his own power to redraw lines in favor of an independent nonpartisan commission. It might pass easily in the first year of the second term Hogan would like to win, since he would draw the lines in 2021.
“I made that argument to President Miller myself,” Hogan said. “‘I understand you want to maintain the power yourself. But you understand, Mike, that I’ll be drawing the districts. I’m trying to give up my own power.'”
“I’m betting that in 2019, you’re going to pass this thing unanimously,” Hogan told Miller, laughing as he recounts the story.
Who wins and loses
“Almost everything we’re pushing for and fighting for are things that most people support,” Hogan said. “70, 80, 90 percent of the people agree with us on all those issues on every poll that’s ever taken. The media has this [theme]: it’s the legislature versus Hogan, do I lose or do they lose; do we win or do they win?”
“It’s the 60, 70, 80 percent of the people that lose. If you’re an elected representative, you’re ignoring 90 percent of the people that you represent.”
“I don’t think the people are going to be happy that they keep shooting down all the things that we’re proposing. It doesn’t hurt me, it hurts those people,” such as the retirees not getting an added personal exemption on their income taxes, or the small businesses who will still have to pay a $300 annual registration fee for the privilege of doing business in Maryland.
“I’m very pleased with where we are at this point” in the General Assembly.
Frictions are natural, he said. “I came here to change things. And there are folks who want to protect the status quo.”
“It’s the way the system is intended to work. The people voted for checks and balances. We didn’t get everything we wanted and neither did they. But I think the citizens of Maryland are getting a pretty good deal. They seem to be happy. I think it’s because they feel we’re getting things done.”
With the legislature in its final hours, “We’re just trying to get this thing wrapped up, to get some things done. The show is pretty much Miller and Busch downstairs. Our work is pretty much done. We’re here to help in any way we can.”