By Len Lazarick
Gov. Larry Hogan won this legislative session by not losing too much and not giving Democrats ammunition against his reelection campaign.
Hogan also won with success on issues where he cooperated more than usual with Democrats, and by choosing to fight them, and lose, only on issues where he held the high ground.
Many legislators in both parties also won with bills large and small they can take home in this election year. And while there’s always high drama between the Republican governor and the Democratic legislature, the many battles between House and Senate show that the real enemy is not in the governor’s suite of the State House, but the other chamber.
Health Insurance: There was true bipartisan cooperation on a bill to stabilize admittedly high health insurance rates for 150,000 people under Obamacare.
“This problem should have been solved in Washington, but nothing has been done,” Hogan said at Thursday’s bill signing. “Our team has been working on potential solutions for more than a year, and I want to sincerely thank the speaker, the Senate president, and legislators from both sides of the aisle for working together with us in a common sense, bipartisan manner to address this crisis head-on and to prevent these massive rate increases.”
“This is an example of what can be accomplished when we work together, and I’m proud to be signing these protections into law,” he said, echoing statements he has made on other bills.
As was fairly typical this session, Senate Republicans had Hogan’s back on this issue. House Republicans didn’t get the memo on the bipartisanship for a bill that applied a one-time $380 million tax on health insurers to prop up the remains of Obamacare.
Transit: There was similar bipartisan cooperation on dedicated funding for the Washington Metro system. Two Montgomery County Democrats, Sen. Brian Feldman and Del. Marc Korman, took the lead, but Hogan worked hard to persuade D.C. and Virginia to go along with $167 million each for a permanent fix for the ailing Metro system. This, and Hogan’s advance of the Purple Line in the Washington suburbs, help undercut the lingering complaints of Baltimore region officials about Hogan’s killing the east-west Red Line in Baltimore.
Again, a majority of Republicans in the House, which has a more severe partisan divide, didn’t get the memo, and voted against the bill. Senate Republicans supported it unanimously.
Amazon: There couldn’t be anything much more bipartisan than the passage of the Amazon PRIME Act, the bill providing at least $5.6 billion in tax incentives and road and transit improvements to attract Amazon’s East Coast headquarters to Montgomery County.
All but one of the county’s 24 liberal legislators supported Hogan’s bill, while the vote in the House had progressives from other areas of the state joining with Republican conservatives in opposition to what was considered a giveaway to the wealthiest man on earth, Jeff Bezos. Opposition to the plan also united progressives and conservative academics. Again, Senate Republicans had Hogan’s back, but a dozen progressives voted against the Amazon package.
Environment: Last year Democrats repeatedly tried to link Hogan to President Trump, with declining success. There was less of such talk this year as Hogan worked to shore up Obamacare and fund transit. But nowhere was the contrast between the allegedly Republican president and the Republican governor more apparent than the environment.
Hogan continues to get surprising praise from some environmental groups as he fought Trump and his Environmental Protection Agency for continued funding to clean up the Chesapeake Bay and ban offshore oil drilling. The Democratic congressional delegation, of course, played a major role. Hogan Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles shares the praise from environmentalists.
Only Hogan’s refusal to completely block another gas pipeline stirred up some of the most adamant environmentalists, leading some green grandmothers to block the State House doors and engineer their own arrest.
School Safety: Legislators from both parties and Hogan were in a bidding war to do everything they could do to make schools safer from shooting incidents. Like on many other issues — cybersecurity, taxes on pensions, septic systems — Hogan’s own bill did not pass, but provisions of his legislation were added to other bills.
The same thing happened on legislation to crack down on repeat violent offenders and relieve some of the violence in Baltimore. House and Senate went back and forth, and Hogan declared victory.
The Hogan administration introduced 31 pieces of legislation, his most ambitious legislative package of the four-year term. Only a handful passed with his name on it, but the governor says he doesn’t care as long as things get done and issues get handled.
But many of the issues he lost are also popular with voters, if not the most important issues like jobs, education, taxes or roads.
Without his signature: Hogan chose not fight the legislature over several bills that the public employees unions wanted and a bill providing for automatic voter registration. More than any recent governor, Hogan has made use of a constitutional provision that allows a bill to become law without his signature, signaling he doesn’t like the bill, but chooses not to fight about it.
He has used this on scores of measures this four-year term.
It will be curious to see what he does after the legislature leaves town with no chance of overriding any veto the rest of this year — except in the unlikely event of a special session, which Hogan definitely will not call.
Redistricting, transparency: As expected, Hogan again pushed his proposal for a bipartisan redistricting commission. Again the legislature took no action, but the issue gained special prominence as it was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Hogan floated a proposal for term limits for legislators; it sank without a trace. The governor again pressed the legislature to live stream video of its proceedings, as they already do for committee hearings. Nothing happened, but in the near future it would give the public a full accounting of floor debate, especially with the limited coverage by a depleted State House press corps.
School spending, corruption: Hogan had several bills to achieve greater accountability for school spending, including the idea of a statewide inspector general. The bills did not pass, but Hogan used them as reminders of corruption and mismanagement, particularly in the school systems of Baltimore and Prince George’s counties, which happen to be the home counties of Hogan’s most prominent Democratic challengers.
It was hard not to be reminded of Democratic corruption as State Sen. Nathaniel Oaks of Baltimore hung around under indictment and ultimately pled guilty to federal charges of corrupt use of his legislative power.
School Construction: When the legislature sought to strip the power of the Board of Public Works which Hogan chairs from its oversight of school construction dollars, he pounded away at the idea of potential corruption in the new process. That seemed a bit exaggerated for a commission on which two of his cabinet secretaries and the state school superintendent will serve, but no matter, the point was made repeatedly.
Democratic legislators presented the bill as a major reform of the process and a necessary hike in school funding — although Hogan was already hitting the new $400 million target this year.
Hogan knew he was going to lose this argument and have his veto overridden, but he insisted that the bill — most of which he supported — was the worst legislation this year.
Taxes: At the beginning of the session, Democrats and Hogan committed to holding Maryland taxpayers harmless from tax increases on their state returns triggered by the changes in federal laws that cut income taxes for most people and corporations. In the end, the legislators chose to keep most of the money — though not spend it this year. They found Hogan’s plan would have actually cut state income taxes for some people, and cut state revenues.
So yet again, Hogan who campaigned in 2014 on rolling back taxes had a tax cut rebuffed by Democratic lawmakers. Some retirees and low-income people will see new tax cuts, but Hogan’s loss on this issue is yet another political talking point for his reelection campaign.
Paid sick leave: How could we forget paid sick leave? At the start of the session, the legislature easily overrode Hogan’s veto of a law forcing most small businesses to offer paid sick leave even for part-time employees. Hogan had offered his own plan of tax subsidies for sick leave that would have covered fewer workers. That plan went nowhere, as did an attempt to delay implementation of the new law. But legislators did pass Hogan’s bill, to subsidize businesses with fewer than 15 employees who had not offered sick leave before.
There were scores if not hundreds of other bills on which Hogan and his legislative aides did not engage, or even offer comment, to the frustration of many legislators.
For Hogan it was matter of you do your thing, I’ll do mine. If legislators want to be the policymakers for the state, go right ahead. If I like it, I’ll put my name on the bottom line. Most prominent on these topics is the issue of medical marijuana.
Medical Marijuana: This has been in the legislature’s hands from the start, and in various ways, it’s been screwed up from the start, particularly its failure to reward minority businesses. The governor did intervene by releasing a disparity study that found evidence minority businesses are at a disadvantage in the medical marijuana industry.
The medical marijuana mess shows how screwed up a legislature with limited business acumen can muck up a process when they want to regulate a new and untested market for what is currently an illegal drug. How could anything go wrong?
After legislation for more minority representation failed in the waning days of last year’s session, a bill finally passed on the final day this year.
Hogan has been happy to observe the shambles from afar, untainted by this mess.