Hogan = Ehrlich? A Sine Die Meditation

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I was hoping to finish this before the clock struck 12, and I did. Yay me! Taking a moment away from the campaign fixation for a thought piece on the state of our state politics as the 2015 legislative session winds down.

A quick overview. An overwhelmingly Democratic state, Maryland managed, through one calamity and another (and another and another) to elect a Republican Governor in November. Larry Hogan was sworn in on January 21, and virtually simultaneously submitted his first budget to the General Assembly.

As is often the case, the General Assembly substantially revised the budget, but did it a lot differently this year than in a typical year with a Democratic governor. The conversation early on in the session was that Hogan was not Bob Ehrlich, the last Repubican governor, who was in office from 2003-2007. His tenure was marked by constant clashes not just over politics and policy, but over temperament and personality. Larry Hogan was present during those years, serving as Ehrlich’s Appointments Secretary and being generally regarded as the hatchet man of the administration. But he’s now the governor, and the word was he wasn’t going to make the same mistakes.

So leadership in Annapolis needed to proceed in a careful manner that would be perceived as even-handed while still addressing Democratic concerns over education and other issues in Hogan’s initial budget proposal. House Appropriations Committee chair Maggie McIntosh, in particular, worked diligently to bring Republicans into the converasation in committee. Budget & Tax Committee chair Ed Kasemeyer did a similar job across the street in the Senate. The legislature’s revised budget proposals, which came out of committee in March, were adopted unanimously by both Appropriations and B&T. Remarkably, all 47 senators voted for the budget proposal on the floor of the Senate. In the House, there were a few holdouts, but 40 out of 50 Republican delegates voted for the committee bills, as the final vote was 129-10 in the House.

Great rejoicing was heard throughout the land. Everyone was on the same page. Even Governor Hogan made what were perceived as positive, if cautious, comments about the passed budget bills.

But there was a catch this year. Under the Maryland Constitution, enormous power is invested in the Governor on budget issues, more so than in virtually any state in the country. The General Assembly can cut, but cannot increase, budget items submitted by the Governor. So when the legislature wanted to increase funding for schools (particularly funding for large counties facing rapidly increasing enrollment - like Montgomery and Prince George’s counties - which, um, didn’t vote for Governor Hogan), to restore the 2% pay increase for state workers that the governor’s budget took away, and to restore higher funding levels for Medicaid, the legislature couldn’t just “put it back in the budget.” It had to pass separate bills allocating specific revenue streams to these purposes, and to mandate that if the money wasn’t spent for the stated purpose, it couldn’t be spent at all.

So there was a catch that Governor Hogan could exploit if he was looking for a fight. If he was, he could simply refuse to spend the money (around 0.5% of the total budget, or $202 million) that had been dedicated by the legislature to schools, workers and poor people’s health care - aka Mom, Apple Pie and Chevrolet.

But he didn’t come right out and say that. Not until late last week, with less than a week to go in the session, and with much of the rest of his legislative program having gone down in flames, did Hogan begin to complain that if he didn’t get more of his legislation passed, he might not spend the reallocated money in the way the General Assembly wanted him to. He would just let that money sit there, doing nothing. And he submitted a supplemental budget that didn’t include any of the $202 million we’ve been discussing.

The response was to tweak the budget proposal in very minor ways, and to reconsider certain bills that had previously been rejected. For example, $1 million was allocated to increased spending on police, a Hogan proposal. Hogan had sought a tax credit for donations to non-public schools - the General Assembly didn’t pass that bill, but it did go back and vote $4 million for textbooks and supplies for private schools.

Hogan remained, and remains, unsatisfied. He continues to threaten not to spend the money on the General Assembly’s priority issues. Over the weekend, he tried to make a deal, telling the legislature it could have some, but not all, of its desired spending and asking the Mikes, Miller and Busch, to choose which priorities were most important. They refused. Today, both the House and the Senate called his bluff, passing the prior budget with the minor revisions agreed to last week. Hogan can’t veto it, but he can, again, refuse to spend for certain items.

What should he do now? I’m not a Republican, and I don’t agree with Governor Hogan on much of anything at all, but here’s some free advice. Let’s go back to where we started - the January conversations about whether Hogan was going to be the same as Bob Ehrlich, or different. In many ways during the session he was different, more open, more affable, less quick to take affront, less eager for a fight.

But over the past week or so, that has unraveled completely, and Hogan now risks open war. Senate President Mike Miller has practically been begging the governor to declare victory and move on. Miller, a consummate deal maker, wants to make everyone a little bit happy - that’s his way. I don’t often agree with him substantively, but in this case, in this situation, he is 100% right. If Larry Hogan declares this budget an “enormous win” for “fiscal sanity” or whatever he wants to call it, Democrats will grumble, but once the post-sine die hangover ends, nobody will be angry and whatever hard feelings may exist right now will dissipate over the summer and fall before the 2016 session starts. And Hogan can build on what he accomplished this year, which is not, as we sit here right now, insubstantial.

If he doesn’t spend the money as directed by the budget passed by all but 10 of the 188 members of the General Assembly, nuclear war will erupt. The 2018 campaign will begin now, today, and it won’t end until the first Tuesday in November three years from now. Every fight will be to the death. And a point needs to be stressed here - Governor Hogan does not appear to have a single ally in the legislature willing to stand up for his newfound position against the legislature’s budget. Every senator voted for it. 80% of the GOP delegates, too. Nobody outside the second floor of the State House is urging him to stand firm, to not give in, to fight the good fight. He’s on his own. Not even Bob Ehrlich found himself in that situation.

So Governor Hogan, in the interests of good government, of cooperation across party lines, of continuing to pursue good policy for the next four years, I urge you to step back, take a deep breath, declare victory on the budget, and begin preparing for 2016.

But as a partisan progressive Democratic activist who wants to make sure my party takes back the governor’s mansion in 2018, I have a different piece of advice. Fight. Don’t give in. Start a war. Please, I beg you. Fight. Fight. Fight. And good luck with your job search come 2019.

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