By Barry Rascovar
It’s been an unusually contentious 90-day Maryland General Assembly session. The Republican governor and Democratic legislature are pulling in starkly different directions.
Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. has made it clear he’d just as soon do away with those pesky lawmakers and rule by executive fiat.
His propaganda pitch is simple: I’m immensely popular right now and that should be enough to sweep away all opposition to my policy proposals.
Hogan, the most powerful governor in America when it comes to budget-making, wants even more unfettered ability to do as he pleases in cutting mandated aid programs.
He mocked lawmakers repeatedly during the session, even comparing them to college-age pranksters at one point.
Scant progress for Hogan
In most cases, he refused to let his underlings work with lawmakers behind the scenes to improve the final work product and reach a compromise.
He kept demanding total surrender by Democratic legislators on a host of conservative Republican initiatives.
No wonder Hogan made scant progress on his agenda. It was too ideological, too partisan and too in-your-face bad-mouthing.
Indeed, Hogan’s decision to play Lone Ranger politics rather than work cooperatively with Democrats in the General Assembly has set the stage for what could be a momentous power shift in the Annapolis State House.
Throughout Maryland’s history, legislatures have let the governor take the lead in setting the agenda for the state’s annual General Assembly session. Lawmakers followed the old adage – the governor proposes and the legislature disposes.
But this time Hogan failed to lead. His 13-point initiative was long on Republican talking points featuring lots of tax cuts, fee cuts and tax credits for businesses as well as impossibly idealistic conservative goals such as wiping away state spending mandates and stripping the Democratic legislature of any power over the decennial redistricting process.
It’s no surprise Hogan met failure on the majority of these items.
Filling the void
What did come as a surprise was legislative leaders’ determination to jump into the policy void created by Hogan.
Where was the comprehensive gubernatorial aid package for riot-torn Baltimore City –the most pressing problem confronting the state?
Where was the gubernatorial package of bills to improve the environment, public schools, state universities or health care?
On these critical issues, Hogan was missing in action.
Instead, House Speaker Mike Busch and Senate President Mike Miller became the initiators, setting their own achievement goals. For the most part, Hogan was left on the sidelines where he shouted nasty criticisms of the players but never offered to join them on the field.
The legislature’s Baltimore aid package, while far from ideal, offered the first tangible evidence of Democratic lawmakers imposing their will on the governor, not vice versa.
It could be the start of a more aggressive approach by legislative leaders, making demands on the governor or even requiring gubernatorial actions.
In the past, lawmakers were deferential and passive partners in the law-making process, giving the governor the primary role in formulating policy and pushing legislation to fruition.
That has started to change.
Over the next two legislative sessions, Hogan’s influence will wane as the 2018 elections draw near and political reelection becomes the driving force. Democratic lawmakers will be less willing to grant Republican Hogan what he wants if it involves partisan goals and initiatives, as seems likely.
His agenda could be put on the shelf as legislators fashion their own package of priority legislation and steer it through the House and Senate with enough votes to override a Hogan veto.
Who will be in charge?
By the time Hogan finishes his first term, he may have created a legislative monster for future chief executives – a General Assembly more capable of replacing the governor as the initiator of major legislation. Their power could increase; his could diminish.
It is likely Hogan can continue to milk his popularity by belittling Democratic lawmakers, portraying himself as the victim of their misguided actions and positioning himself as the advocate of lower taxes and less intrusive government. It’s worked so far.
Yet at the same time, if the chasm between Hogan and legislative leaders widens the governor may not have much in the way of achievements to show voters. By 2018, a cynical public may not view him so positively.
A more powerful state legislature seems on the horizon, and that’s not good news for any governor – unless he is willing to collaborate and compromise. Hogan has shown a lack of interest in either.
The verdict on the governor is still out. He’s shown he can retain his popularity. But can Hogan get major legislation approved while taking a confrontational approach toward a more assertive General Assembly?