Two-party rule is about to return to Annapolis after eight years of Democratic dominance, bringing more questions than answers as lawmakers arrive Wednesday for their annual 90-day session.
Legislators know they will be weighing budget reductions and tax cuts after Gov.-elect Larry Hogan, a Republican, is sworn into power. However, uncertainty is high on the agenda.
Hogan, who takes office a week after the General Assembly begins, is pledging to work closely with the Democrats who dominate both chambers of the legislature. But those Democrats are wary about how far he might go to make good on other campaign promises — to slash spending and roll back tax increases passed under outgoing Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), many of which help pay for progressive programs and policies.
Hogan has promised to make Maryland more business-friendly and is expected to push for changes on other fronts, including expanding the state’s charter schools and stepping up efforts to combat heroin overdoses. At the same time, he has shared little since the election about the details of his agenda, leaving lawmakers largely in the dark about the extent of his priorities.
“From what I know of him, he’s a reasonable guy, but as of now, I don’t know what the relationship is going to be like,” said Del. Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery), a 24-year House veteran. “He’s pretty much of a blank slate. You learn a lot about somebody once you get into a controversy and see how they respond.”
While the new governor will occupy center stage in Annapolis, Democrats are preparing to push a variety of measures on which Hogan, an Anne Arundel County businessman who has never held elected office, has been silent. Those include an overhaul of child-custody laws, a requirement that police wear body cameras and an expansion of a measure passed last year decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana.
Hogan served in the administration of Maryland’s last Republican governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. He has promised to govern in a bipartisan fashion, and the long-serving leaders of the House and Senate have both pledged to try to work with him, expressing hope that there will not be a return to the acrimony of the Ehrlich years.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said they are confident they will find common ground with Hogan on implementing recommendations from a commission they set up last year on improving Maryland’s business environment.
But as lawmakers return, there is also an undercurrent of anxiety about the magnitude of cuts that Hogan will seek to address an inherited shortfall of about $750 million in the coming year’s budget and to free up funds for tax relief.
Lawmakers from the Washington suburbs, where Hogan received far fewer votes than Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D), are particularly nervous about their priorities, including the future of the Purple Line rail project and state funding for a new Prince George’s hospital.
Among the possible budget cuts coming from Hogan: about $135 million in supplemental grants to jurisdictions, including Montgomery and Prince George’s, where the cost of providing public education is more expensive than elsewhere in the state.
Joseph M. Getty, Hogan’s policy and legislative director, declined to say whether the governor-elect intends to cut the so-called Geographic Cost of Education Index funding. He allowed, however, that “everybody knows there’s a menu” of possible cuts, “and the menu is only so large.”
Hogan’s aim for his first session, Getty said, will be to start “re-basing” the state budget, adjusting some of the formulas that dictate how much the state must spend in areas such as health care, education and aid to local governments. Under the current system, the state has routinely planned to spend more than it projects to collect in revenue, resulting in tax increases, spending cuts and accounting maneuvers to balance the books.
Getty, a Republican senator from Carroll County who plans to serve in the chamber until Hogan takes office, said Hogan “is looking at the first session as a budget retrenchment.” The governor-elect also wants to get the state’s debt service under control, Getty said. Payments on borrowing to build schools and other capital projects have eaten up an increasing share of the operating budget in recent years.
Hogan’s budget proposal is due to the legislature two days after he is sworn in.
“When the budget comes down, we’re going to see what this governor is all about,” said Miller, who has known Hogan and his father, a former congressman from Prince George’s, for decades.
Miller said Hogan’s victory gives him a mandate to slow spending growth — but not to halt progress on Democratic priorities. “People don’t want us retreating on issues such as education, health care and the environment,” Miller said.
Hogan told reporters at a news conference last week that he is determined to provide some tax relief shortly after taking office, despite the looming shortfall. He declined to elaborate, and his aides said he was not available for an interview.
The governor-elect has previously targeted the so-called “rain tax,” a fee the state has directed its 10 largest jurisdictions to impose to fund storm-water pollution programs. At a minimum, Hogan would like to give counties the option of finding other ways to pay for the programs.
Legislative leaders are skeptical, however, that Hogan will find a responsible way to provide sweeping tax relief this session. Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer (D-Baltimore County), chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, said cuts to the sales tax or income tax, for example, are unlikely.
While Hogan has described the budget outlook as dire, lawmakers point out that both O’Malley and Ehrlich faced larger shortfalls during the early part of their tenures.
“This talk about a crisis is overblown,” said Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Montgomery). He predicted that Hogan would propose deeper spending cuts than needed to balance the budget in order to make it possible to provide tax relief in coming years.
Shortly after his election, Hogan said he did not intend to talk about policy proposals before his inauguration. That pledge has frustrated the media and advocacy groups. Even some Republican lawmakers who are helping with Hogan’s transition to office say they know relatively little about the scope of his first-session plans.
“The budget will certainly reveal a lot of public-policy priorities,” said incoming Senate Minority Whip Christopher B. Shank (R-Washington), a member of Hogan’s transition team.
Hogan aides say he has proceeded methodically, with his first priority being to build a leadership team. Hogan and his staff have also spent a great deal of time working on his budget proposal, Getty said, while the rest of his legislative agenda remains a work in progress.
Getty confirmed that Hogan and Miller have been talking about ways to expand Maryland’s charter school offerings by loosening the criteria for proposals. The state’s program was launched in 2003 at Ehrlich’s urging and now includes 47 schools, mostly in Baltimore and Prince George’s.
“We’re open to look at what they want to present,” Busch said. “But people have to understand that we already have a charter-schools law that seems to be working very well.”
Hogan, meanwhile, has yet to weigh in on many other topics expected to spark debate in this year’s session.
Sen. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County), the new chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, said his panel is likely to take up several issues related to marijuana, including whether to decriminalize possession of drug paraphernalia such as bowls and roach clips. Last year, the legislature made it a civil offense, rather than a criminal offense, to possess small amounts of marijuana. But people can still be charged criminally for having drug paraphernalia.
Zirkin’s committee probably will consider legislation inspired by the shooting of an unarmed man in Ferguson, Mo. last year, including whether police should be required to wear body cameras. And Zirkin said he wants to rewrite Maryland’s divorce laws to make it simpler for estranged couples to part ways.
Those subjects all have one thing in common.
“I haven’t heard a word from the new administration about any issues that we might be pursuing,” Zirkin said. “All I’ve heard about is budget issues.”
Bill Turque and Arelis R. Hernandez contributed to this story.
Slash spending and
roll back tax increases
Combat heroin overdoses
Address budget shortfall
Improving business environment
Future of hydraulic fracturing
Expansion of charter schools