The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Vetoes a test for Republican governor with national ambitions

As he considers his future, Gov. Larry Hogan faces political cost of action on Democratic laws expanding abortion access and creating a recreational marijuana industry

Gov. Larry Hogan (R) during a March 24 news conference in Annapolis. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun/AP)
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Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) dodged the divisive issue of abortion throughout his seven-year tenure, describing himself as a pro-life Catholic leading a state where access to abortion is a “matter of settled law.”

But now, as he weighs a bid for president, he’ll be forced to take a public stand this week as abortion and a list of other litmus-test policies hit the governor’s desk.

Among them: new gun-control regulations, an accelerated climate change plan, a framework for legalizing recreational marijuana and a costly paid family leave program.

The General Assembly Democrats’ election-year rush to pass their priorities in time to override his vetoes has sent a suite of bills to his desk, effectively cornering Hogan on liberal issues unpopular with Republican primary voters.

“He’s tried to stay away from a lot of these issues,” said Mileah Kromer, a political scientist at Goucher College who has written a forthcoming book about Hogan.

The moment represents a pivot in political calculus for Hogan, who has governed as a pragmatist to keep Democratic support in deep-blue Maryland, rather than appeasing a Republican base. As his term draws to a close, he’s positioning himself to speak to a different constituency and help rebuild a fractured GOP.

“There are certain policy positions that national Republican voters would expect that the average Maryland voter would not,” Kromer said. “Social issues like guns and abortion are really key issues among Republican primary voters.”

Hogan has openly contemplated his role in reshaping the Republican Party and left open the possibility of challenging former president Donald Trump for the nomination. He has met with donors as he has traveled outside Maryland to bolster anti-Trump candidates, while also telling voters at home he remains focused on his job and plans to “run through the tape.”

But Hogan spokesman Michael Ricci said Friday that the governor has not recalibrated his decision-making on the vetoes, and he’s already signaled he will overturn some of the legislation.

“The governor’s process for reviewing this legislation is no different this year than from any other year,” Ricci said. “He weighs each issue based on the merits, the priorities of his administration and input from the relevant stakeholders.”

But the future political implications of Hogan’s decisions on policies largely popular in the state are not lost on advocates.

As Del. Lesley Lopez (D-Montgomery) sought to persuade Hogan not to veto her gun-control legislation, she offered Republican public polling as Exhibit A.

“I pointed out to the governor’s staff that according to a Morning Call Consult poll that was conducted in late February, 59 percent of Republican voters actually support regulating privately made firearms in the same way that we would regulate any other type of firearm,” said Lopez.

Her bill prohibits the sale and possession of untraceable firearms known as ghost guns, which have hindered police investigations and prosecutions.

“I indicated that this is an issue that polls very well nationally and that he should be giving it his full support,” she said.

Hogan has delicately approached gun policies, both striking and embracing new regulations during his tenure.

He signed a ban on the sale of bump stocks and a “red flag” law that allows judges to seize firearms from people deemed a threat to themselves or others. He also vetoed an effort to restrict who can get a concealed carry permit.

During his first campaign in 2014, gun rights advocates said he offered private assurances that he would work to expand access to firearms. During his second in 2018, he publicly sought distance from the National Rifle Association and said he would not accept the group’s endorsement.

On recreational marijuana, Hogan has never taken a public position. Nor has he said how he would vote on November’s referendum that would legalize cannabis. But he will have to decide by the end of next week whether to veto contingent legislation that would address some issues legalization creates, including how much cannabis a person can grow or possess and when past drug convictions can be reversed.

The governor has similarly remained silent on a bill to expand access to abortion by allowing medical professionals other than doctors to perform the procedure. The legislation also forces most insurance policies to pay for abortions without out-of-pocket costs to patients.

Md. Gov. Larry Hogan’s messages to state employees self-destruct in 24 hours

It is the most sweeping change to Maryland abortion laws in three decades, since a state referendum secured the right to abortion in state law. As with the other bills, he could chose to veto it, sign it or let it become law without his signature.

The final two vetoes could indicate how much Hogan toes a GOP party line on pocketbook issues or leans into liberal policies he has embraced in part in the past. The governor has heralded his record on the environment and cleaning up the Chesapeake, though Democrats have said he should go even further to address climate change. And during his reelection bid, he gave a full-throated embrace of a parental leave policy for state workers that his administration had once opposed.

With veto decisions on those two issues now on his desk, Hogan must decide whether to endorse a costly paid family leave initiative that creates a program similar to unemployment insurance. It provides up to 12 weeks of subsidized leave to most workers after life events, including the birth of a child or to care for an ill loved one. It also levies a tax on employers and workers to fund it.

Again, Hogan has a mixed record on the issue and declined to publicly say where he stands. Hogan pushed his own statewide paid sick leave policy in 2017 but vetoed one developed by Democrats after calling it “job-killing” and “disastrous to our economy.” In 2018, he celebrated a parental leave policy for state workers and promised to encourage private employers to create tax credits to implement something similar. But during debate this year, he did not offer an alternative proposal to the Democrats’ plan.

In vote-rich Montgomery, Hogan praises sweeping parental leave policy his administration once opposed

The governor’s clearest veto intention this year is attached to the omnibus climate change bill that gives Maryland some of the nation’s most ambitious goals to cut greenhouse gas emissions. In March, he issued a public statement calling the climate bill a “reckless and controversial energy tax.”

Democrats hold supermajorities in both chambers of the General Assembly, and leaders sent these bills to Hogan late Friday, giving him until late next week to make a decision. Democrats have promised to try to override his vetoes before they adjourn April 11.